ELLSWORTH, Maine — It’s seeming less and less likely that Ellsworth voters will vote on whether to withdraw their city from Regional School Unit 24 this November.
On Thursday, representatives from the Ellsworth Withdrawal Committee, RSU and state Department of Education all said the process would likely require much more time than the three months between now and Election Day.
“This process just plain takes time,” said Deputy Commissioner of Education Jim Rier. “I’m not saying it’s not possible, but it would be unusually difficult.”
Withdrawal Committee Chairman Mark Rosborough had set an Aug. 1 deadline to submit a withdrawal agreement to Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, who has 60 days to either grant conditional approval or send the document back for revision.
The Aug. 1 deadline was necessary to meet several other time-sensitive requirements to hold a voter in November, Rosborough determined. The problem, Rier said, is the commissioner has 60 days from the receipt of a plan agreed to by both the committee and the RSU — an agreement that for now seems months away as both sides disagree on several critical areas, including transportation and compensation to the RSU for investments made in Ellsworth.
Rier told Rosborough that it was unlikely his group would have the plan ready inside 90 days. No other withdrawal committee ever has, he said. Rosborough said it was a sobering meeting.
“I’m a very optimistic individual,” Rosborough said Thursday. “But it’s a bit of a reality check. But that won’t stop my enthusiasm to get this done.”
Rosborough has been frustrated with the slow pace of negotiations. But Rier also disagreed with the withdrawal committee’s view that the RSU board was dragging its feet and failing to negotiate in good faith. He said it was crucial that both sides are deliberate in considering all the implications of withdrawal.
“I believe this is a very complex procedure, especially because Ellsworth is the major participant in the RSU,” Rier said. “The implications for them and for the RSU in that kind of change are serious.”
David Bridgham, business manager for RSU 24, also disputed the claim that the RSU board was holding up the process on purpose.
“I think [Rosborough] knows that if they want to get this done by November, it’s going to be a political process, not a negotiation process,” he said. “They’ve been working on a narrative since the beginning that they’re being stonewalled at every turn, but they’ve met with us only three times.”
Bridgham said the board is negotiating fairly and reasonably quickly, considering they are also negotiating withdrawal agreements with Hancock and Lamoine. He pointed out that it took two years to cobble together the RSU, and said coming together is always harder than breaking apart.
“My sense is if you worked at it pretty consistently, it would still take six, seven months to resolve,” Bridgham said. “When you’ve got three going on at the same time, it could be even longer.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.