CHERRYFIELD, Maine — The Washington County community of Cherryfield is now immersed in the complicated process of seeking state and local approval to withdraw its elementary school from Maine School Administrative District 37 and going it alone, perhaps as soon as July.
The multifaceted process involves preliminary and final approval by the Maine Department of Education, local public hearings, a referendum and, if that referendum is successful, local school committee elections.
Based in Harrington, SAD 37 comprises four elementary schools and a high school that collectively meet the needs of K-12 students from Addison, Cherryfield, Columbia, Columbia Falls, Harrington and Milbridge. The school district’s total enrollment is 722 students, including 105 at Cherryfield Elementary.
The long-term fate of the K-8 school in Cherryfield has been a matter of debate for some years. At one point the SAD 37 board of directors voted to close the school at the end of the 2007-08 school year, a decision that was later reversed. A subsequent effort by SAD 37 to close the school as a cost-saving strategy was rebuffed in May 2009, when Cherryfield residents voted 224-64 to keep the school up and running. That decision required the town to pay SAD 37 a one-year, $410,000 penalty, the amount of projected savings had the school been closed.
When another school closure was proposed last spring, Cherryfield residents voted 217-32 on April 30, 2012, to keep the school open. That outcome triggered a one-year, $327,038 penalty payable to SAD 37.
“What’s really overwhelmed me throughout this whole process is how Cherryfield, as a community, has overwhelmingly supported this school, despite the fact that keeping the school open has raised property taxes,” said Art Tatangelo, the chairman of the town’s five-member board of selectmen.
Tatangelo was a member of Cherryfield’s four-person withdrawal committee that met for months after the April 30 referendum to negotiate a state-mandated withdrawal agreement with SAD 37. That agreement was approved by both parties in January.
“It was just like a divorce, in terms of dividing up assets,” said Tatangelo, who is quick to note he’s never been divorced. “Cherryfield owns no educational assets, but it does own the physical plant of the school. It was a process that ensured that contracts and other obligations were honored and ensured good educational continuity for the students.”
Once the negotiations were over and an agreement was signed by both SAD 37 officials and the Cherryfield withdrawal committee, the agreement was forwarded to Augusta for review by the state’s Department of Education. As of Friday, the results of that review had not been announced, although Tatangelo believes that preliminary report will support the withdrawal agreement.
“I think what’s holding this up is [the state’s] concern that we do not yet have a central office set up to handle tax stuff and reporting requirements that come with an octopus of forms and regulations,” Tatangelo said. “We’ve met with Jonesport-Beals school officials to discuss sharing their central office, which would involve a cost-sharing agreement that would save them money and be cheaper and much easier for us. Sharing a superintendent is also definitely a possibility. We’re drawing up a proposal now and hope to get it to them by Monday.”
Those actively involved in the effort to re-establish local control of Cherryfield Elementary are working under a tight deadline, as puzzle pieces of approvals, public hearings and elections required must be in place before July 1, 2013, when the next school year legally begins.
“We understand the clock is ticking,” Tatangelo said. “I think these deadlines are meetable, but there’s not a lot of leeway.”
To keep the process moving, the town of Cherryfield has recruited the help of Raymond Freve of Plymouth, a former SAD 48 superintendent who also has held 20-plus interim superintendent appointments throughout the state. Now retired, Freve said Friday he is drafting a proposed budget for the next school year based on past budgets and projected enrollment and state subsidy revenues.
“When we go to public meetings on this, we want to have accurate figures that reflect the costs of running our own, stand-alone municipal school,” Tatangelo said. “And we want those figures to show two things: the actual day-to-day expenses and the start-up costs.”
If the state signs off on the withdrawal agreement, the state will schedule a public hearing on the agreement within 20 days of preliminary approval. That meeting will be moderated by Everett Grant of Addison, the chairman of the SAD 37 board of directors. After that session the withdrawal agreement will be resubmitted to Augusta with a request for final approval, a process that can take as long as 35 days.
The warrant for Cherryfield’s next town meeting, scheduled for Monday, March 11, includes a proposal to expand from three to five the number of members on the town’s school committee, with members serving staggered terms. If town meeting voters approve, new school committee members would be chosen at an election should a referendum on the withdrawal agreement be approved.
“If we get state approval, we must have a public hearing in Cherryfield at least 10 days before an election, which we’re hoping will happen in April or early May,” Tatangelo said. “If the referendum is approved, I expect we will have school committee elections in early June.”
SAD 37 Superintendent Ronald Ramsay said Friday it is hard to predict what the financial fallout will be should Cherryfield go its own way, taking with it state subsidies and property tax revenues.
“It’s hard to project,” Ramsay said. “They bring in [through state subsidies] about $600,000 and pay about the same amount in [property] taxation. We’ll save some money by not running that school any more, but it won’t cover all the lost revenue involved.
“I’m hoping it doesn’t happen,” Ramsay said. “We don’t want to lose them.”