KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — An issue that hits the pocketbooks for some residents and tugs at the heartstrings of others is dividing the community as the March 26 special election approaches.
Voters will decide next week whether to support a proposed cost sharing formula for RSU 21 that increases costs to Kennebunkport taxpayers. They also need to cast a vote on whether or not to support spending $30,000 to begin a study of withdrawal from the school district.
Residents are divided over the issues, with some writing letters to the York County Coast Star supporting the withdrawal process, while others write rebuttals and post signs on their lawns reading, “Vote No on Withdrawal, support RSU 21.”
The issue has even prompted public officials to take sides.
“I have to separate myself from the emotional end of it and the practical end of it. I think it’s totally unfair that Kennebunk and Arundel are basically pushing off their responsibility on to us,” said Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Sheila Matthews-Bull, who supports the withdrawal study and has written a letter to the paper. “I’m not fighting to leave the RSU, that’s not my goal. My goal is for them to treat us fairly.”
The cost-sharing proposal would change the weighted formula between Kennebunkport, Kennebunk and Arundel to be based 90 percent on state valuation and 10 percent on pupil count for costs over essential programs and services. It would also require the three towns to share any new local debt, which could include the approximately $60 million in improvements to Consolidated School, Mildred L. Day School and Kennebunk High School that the RSU plans to bring forward in the fall, under the new formula.
And that’s what some residents are saying is tough to swallow.
If the new cost-sharing formula is approved, as well as the school improvements, Arundel would see a $93 per $100,000 valuation increase; Kennebunk would see a $129 increase per $100,000; and Kennebunkport a $176 per $100,000 increase.
That means the owner of a $300,000 home in Kennebunkport would need to pay an additional $528 for school taxes.
Two issues, two votes?
A group of parents who have come out in support of the school district said the decision on whether or not to support the cost sharing proposal is one residents must make individually.
They said exploring withdrawal because of the cost-sharing proposal, though, is reactionary and could come at the detriment of students.
“I think it’s really scary. I think it’s very shortsighted for people to think that we can replicate the quality that we have, on our own,” said Gaby Grekin, a parent of five kids, three of whom are currently at Consolidated School. “The thought of giving up on that, without any demonstrable benefits, I just see no benefit to what we’re getting. Taxes are always higher than anybody wants them to be. Everybody would always prefer lower taxes. But when it comes to RSU 21, I know what I’m getting.”
While some residents said the cost-sharing proposal and withdrawal are two separate issues, Jackie Kellett, the Kennebunkport resident who submitted the citizen’s petition requesting the $30,000 to study withdrawal, said the proposal was the final straw that prompted her to explore withdrawal. Kellett, who once served on the MSAD 71 Board of Directors and also served on the town committee that explored withdrawal last year, said the cost to the town of remaining in the RSU has “crept up and up” over the years and “it’s time” to explore another option.
“It’s time that we ran our own school,” Kellett said. “The thing that bothers me is we don’t have the votes. When I was on the board we weren’t town against town. We worked together to do what’s best for the kids. I just think parents today need to make a choice and I don’t think in RSU 21 they have a choice.”
For those who want to explore withdrawal, it comes down to cost. Matthews-Bull said while Kennebunkport has 16 percent of the students in the school district, the town pays $15,655 per student. Meanwhile, Kennebunk pays $11,950 with 61 percent of the district’s students and Arundel pays $6,852 with 22 percent of students, she said.
While a review by the town’s Educational Options Study Committee last year found that withdrawing is not likely to save taxpayers significant money and, in fact, could cost more than remaining with the district, Selectman Allen Daggett said that review did not include the increases due to the proposed cost-sharing formula or the potential school improvements.
“I am so adamant for the $30,000 to be spent to hire a professional to come in and evaluate the whole thing from beginning to end. A lot of people say I don’t want to spend the $30,000 and stay in the RSU. How can you commit one way or another without knowing all the information?” Daggett asked. “You’ve got to look at the whole picture, take the community in whole, not just the school system. The school is one of the most important things here, but so are the elderly, people who are retired, couples where both the husband and wife have to work and have a hard time paying taxes now. These are the people I have to watch out for. It’s so important to keep the community whole and to make everything work well.”
Those supporting the RSU say they don’t see the benefit to the study, and they’re concerned what will happen to teachers at Consolidated, the relationships their children have formed as a part of the district, where the town’s students would go after elementary school, and if Kennebunkport will miss out on opportunities that come along with being a part of the district.
“Financially it’s a wash and what is the point? There is absolutely no point of breaking off from the district when there’s no financial upside whatsoever,” said Consolidated parent Liz Johnson, a member of the school PTA. “I could understand if there was a real financial reason other than historical baggage, but I don’t get why. We’re stronger as one, not divided.”
David James, a member of the executive committee of the Kennebunkport Residents Association, said the group is not supporting the cost-sharing proposal or the $30,000 study of withdrawal.
“We feel it’s a waste of $30,000 to conduct yet one more report that’s not likely to come up with anything different,” James said. “We think there’s little to no cost savings to be realized, substantial risks in unintended consequences, things we just don’t understand.”
Daggett said if the town were to withdraw, its students would always be taken care of. Some, like Kellett, think the quality of education would even improve.
“If we were to go on our own, we will take care of our students and our kids,” Daggett said.
Walking in Arundel’s footsteps
Concerns for some expand beyond the school and into the broader community. Those supporting the RSU said they watched the town of Arundel go through a similar process of withdrawal exploration last year, only to find that the option wasn’t feasible. Arundel’s experience also showed how divisive the issue can be to a community, they said.
“It’s very uncomfortable. It was painful to watch what Arundel went through, what they went through internally within their community, but I also felt there were divisions between the communities. I felt they resented us in some way,” Grekin said. “The borders are so superficial.”
“I want us to stay united. I don’t want to divide a town, like Arundel,” said Consolidated School parent Amy Johnson, a member of the school’s PTA. “The RSU has done so many wonderful things and it’s only getting better. I want to keep going and I want Kennebunkport to be a part of it.”
The cost-sharing proposal must pass by two-thirds majority of the total votes in all three towns, while the article to explore withdrawal must pass by a majority of voters in Kennebunkport. If the withdrawal article passes, the Board of Selectmen must appoint a withdrawal committee made up of a member of the board, a representative of the general public, and someone who signed the citizen’s petition. The school district must also appoint one of Kennebunkport’s school board representatives to the committee.
The committee would have 30 days to convene and 90 days to submit an agreement between the town and the RSU to the state commissioner of education for how Kennebunkport would educate it students. Once submitted, the commissioner has 60 days to respond and, following approval, the town would hold a formal vote asking the town if it wants to withdraw from RSU 21. That would require a two-thirds vote for passage.
“The ultimate fear is that it would actually pass in the long run to actually withdraw,” Liz Johnson said. “Ultimately, I’m not that worried about Consolidated because we have such an amazing group of really smart parents who care a lot about that school and about their kids’ education. I do fear that so many of us already put in so much time and effort into making that school what it is today, and that’s with the support of the district, so to have to start from scratch and figure all that out as our own one-school district, it’s just more time and effort that I’m not sure our parents have.”
When it’s time to vote on the proposed cost-sharing formula, Matthews-Bull said she hopes the residents of Kennebunk and Arundel can put themselves in the shoes of Kennebunkport taxpayers.
“I hope there are enough ethical people left in Kennebunk and Arundel that will see the unfairness of what’s going on and vote with us,” she said. “I don’t think either of those towns would want this to happen to them.”