ELLSWORTH, Maine — While the head of the committee trying to pull Ellsworth out of Regional School Unit 24 cries foul over perceived sluggishness at the negotiating table, school administrators and state officials say there’s nothing that can be done to speed up the process.
Now, Withdrawal Committee Chairman Mark Rosborough, fearful a deal may never come, says he’ll reach out to state legislators in an effort to prevent gridlock.
“We have to try to get something changed in Augusta to give the communities a little more latitude,” said Rosborough on Friday.
Ellsworth, along with Hancock and Lamoine, voted to pursue withdrawal back in June. After three months, Rosborough is unhappy with how long the negotiating process is taking. The Ellsworth Withdrawal Committee hoped to have a secession vote on the Nov. 6 ballot, but has since given up that goal.
Snags have emerged in talks about support services in areas such as food service and information technology, who will control the curriculum at Hancock County Technical Center and what students a new Ellsworth school unit would have to accept. Rosborough is fearful an agreement may be impossible.
“We’ve got three communities and a huge percent [of voters] said they want out,” he said. “But we can’t get the RSU to work to get that accomplished.”
RSU 24 Superintendent Suzanne Lukas admitted that talks had “stalled” on a few contentious areas, but said the school board and her administration believe an agreement will be reached. She denied allegations that the RSU is unwilling to work out a deal.
“My business manager and I have spent most of the summer working on the different versions of agreements with our legal firm, researching, putting together information,” she said. “This has been a top priority for us, so any characterizations that we’ve dragged our feet is unfair and inaccurate.”
There is no mechanism in place to provide mediation or resolution to gridlocked negotiation between a municipality and RSU, said state Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin. He said it hasn’t happened yet that the two sides couldn’t find a mutually agreeable arrangement, and he didn’t predict it would happen in Ellsworth.
“Ultimately, they could sue each other, but I don’t think it will come to that,” he said Friday. “I know Ellsworth is in a great rush to move forward, but in reality this takes a long time.”
Of the 21 municipalities that voted to form withdrawal committees and negotiate a proposal for leaving their respective RSUs, only four have left the bargaining table with an agreement the state approved. Those towns — Frankfort, Arundel, Glenburn and Veazie — will hold their final votes on Nov. 6.
But Connerty-Marin said those four communities are the exception and not the norm for a process that began before consolidation in 2009. The RSU withdrawal process is practically identical to the old School Administrative District withdrawal process, he said, and it usually takes at least a year between the preliminary and final referendums.
“The process is designed to be difficult, but not impossible,” he said. “Nobody wants districts forming and breaking apart at random. It’s disruptive and challenging.”
Rosborough had petitioned the DOE to send a mediator or representative to “keep things going back and forth in good faith,” but the department declined. Connerty-Marin said it would be wrong for Augusta to intervene in a local process, especially when Commissioner Stephen Bowen must ultimately accept or deny the withdrawal deal.
“We can’t force people to move faster,” Connerty-Marin said.
No date has been set yet for the next meeting between Ellsworth and the RSU, but Rosborough said Ellsworth’s withdrawal committee will soon meet with Lamoine and Hancock. There has been speculation that the three municipalities may join forces if they successfully withdraw from RSU 24.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.