ELLSWORTH, Maine — Loss of local control and a perception of growing apathy among residents were the top reasons given Tuesday night by those who would like to see the city of Ellsworth withdraw from RSU 24.
On June 12, residents of Ellsworth, Hancock and Lamoine will vote on whether to stay in RSU 24 or to begin the multistep process of leaving the school district. Those three towns contribute more than 60 percent of the students within RSU 24, which includes a dozen municipalities stretching from Mariaville to Steuben.
About 50 people attended a public hearing on Tuesday evening with members of the Ellsworth City Council to discuss the issue. Although less than a dozen people spoke, many others indicated through their applause that they supported the withdrawal petition.
“We have lost complete control of our destiny in this school system and I, for one, want to get it back,” said Jim Pendergist, a member of the group behind the citizen-initiated petition to end the city’s relationship with the district.
RSU 24 became operational in the summer of 2009 amid the wave of school consolidations required as part of the Baldacci administration’s campaign to reduce administrative costs and increase efficiencies in the state’s education system.
But the effort remains controversial years later, and in recent legislative sessions lawmakers have removed the financial penalties on those towns that have not consolidated and made it easier for towns to leave a regional school unit.
Although supporters of withdrawal from RSU 24 correctly point out that Ellsworth taxpayers are paying substantially more now than before consolidation, district officials said Tuesday night that consolidation is not the reason. In fact, they claim RSU 24 is saving taxpayers money throughout the district.
David Bridgham, business manager at RSU 24, said the proposed fiscal year 2013 school budget is actually $1.5 million smaller than in fiscal year 2009 after removing the debt service for two new schools.
Instead, Ellsworth residents have had to pay more because of the loss of $3.2 million in state and federal funds and a $143 million increase in the city’s valuation, which is used by the state to calculate the local share of education costs.
Withdrawal supporters, however, countered that Ellsworth residents feel as if they’ve lost a say in how the city’s schools are run, resulting in fewer people attending RSU board meetings and voting on the school budget. They also said programs have been cut, teachers are fearful of speaking out and there’s a perception that education quality is slipping.
“We should be able, in Ellsworth, to control the [local] education system,” said Mark Rosborough, another coordinator of the withdrawal petition. “What is good for other communities may not be good for Ellsworth.”
But Dick Gray, a member of the RSU 24 board, pointed out that Ellsworth does have substantial say through the four city residents elected to serve on the 14-member school board.
“Am I happy with the way things are? I’m never happy, but I am somewhat pleased and I think things are doing fine,” Gray said. “There are a lot of things going for the RSU that are good for it, good for you and good for everyone.”
If Ellsworth voters elect on June 12 to move forward with withdrawal, a committee will be established to draft a withdrawal agreement covering all the complex details of splitting with the RSU. That agreement must then be approved by the Maine Department of Education and finally approved a second time by town voters.