BUCKSPORT, Maine — This town of about 5,000 may be the next in Hancock County to seek withdrawal from its regional school unit.
Concerned about a school budget increase and loss of control over the school district, the Town Council has instructed Town Manager Michael Brennan to conduct preliminary research on withdrawal from RSU 25, which includes Bucksport, Orland, Prospect and Verona Island.
Councilors were eager to say that their line of inquiry is only about information-seeking and doesn’t represent an eagerness to leave the RSU. Still, questions about the investigation revealed an unhappiness with the current state of school-municipality relations.
Before school unit consolidation in the 2009-2010 school year, Bucksport operated as a municipal school district. Some councilors say that since then, the town has lost significant control over the schools, including the budget process.
Under the old school model, the Council had final say over the school budget. Now, the RSU consults with each town, but ultimately sets its own budget for voter approval.
This spring, the RSU 25 board proposed a $13.28 million budget, an increase of $164,500 over the previous fiscal year. Voters approved the budget, making for the first budget hike in the RSU’s history. The resulting tax increase left some councilors uneasy.
“The town of Bucksport doesn’t need a tax increase,” said Councilor Michael Ormsby on Tuesday. “There’s a lot of fixed-income people in town, a lot of older people, and they just can’t afford it.”
“We have some issues we need to take care of,” Ormsby continued. “This situation doesn’t work well in my opinion, for the taxpayer or the town.”
Councilor Byron Vinton III also has voiced his concern over the Town Council’s limited role in the school budget process and decision making. He said at a recent Council meeting that councilors used to have line-item veto power over 10 district budget lines. Now they have none.
That process includes a referendum question, creation of a withdrawal committee, negotiations between that committee and the RSU, approval from the state commissioner of education and finally another referendum question.
Brennan said he thought the frustration was simply a matter of the town getting used to a relatively new school district structure.
“Ideally, we don’t want withdrawal to happen,” he said Tuesday. “This is mostly growing pains. There’s a history of the town council being more involved in the process, and I think there’s growing pains with the change and the creation of the RSU.”
Calls to Bucksport’s representatives on the RSU 25 board were redirected to Superintendent Jim Boothby.
Boothby is optimistic the council and the RSU can come to a resolution without putting withdrawal on the table. The RSU structure has led to significant savings, as shown by decreased spending in three of the four budgets passed by the town, he said.
At the most recent council meeting, Boothby said efforts could be made to improve communication between the RSU board and the Council in an effort to keep the Council more involved. But in the end, he said, both parties need to be comfortable with compromise.
“There were frustrations on both sides, I understand that,” he said at the meeting. “But that comes with reality, then you move on.”
Brennan said he likely would not have a report on withdrawal ready for the Council at its next meeting on July 12, and most councilors don’t seem to be in a rush.
“My take is that it never hurts to look into it,” said Councilor David Kee. “It never hurts to look into anything. It’s when you get to decision time that it makes a difference.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.