ELLSWORTH, Maine — Nine months after negotiations began, Ellsworth and Regional School Unit 24 have signed off on a plan to see the city withdraw from the 4-year-old school district.
The 57-page document was signed March 21 and shipped to Augusta, where it awaits a decision from Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen, whose approval is necessary before withdrawal can move ahead toward a public referendum.
Ellsworth, along with Hancock and Lamoine, voted to pursue withdrawal in June last year. Negotiations have continued in fits and starts since, and RSU 24 Superintendent Suzanne Lukas anticipates agreements with Hancock and Lamoine to be finalized sooner rather than later.
“We anticipate that there will be very similar agreements to the one with Ellsworth, though each community is different, and that those agreements will be agreed to by the board in the next week or so,” Lukas said Monday.
The deal struck between Ellsworth, the largest city in the district, and RSU 24 would see Ellsworth retake control of the Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School, Ellsworth High School and Hancock County Technical Center.
If it is ultimately approved by voters, Ellsworth would formally withdraw from RSU 24 on June 30, 2014. Ellsworth students attending RSU 24 schools, and students from other communities attending Ellsworth schools, would be allowed to remain at the school in which they are enrolled until June 30, 2015. After that, Ellsworth students must attend Ellsworth schools, and students in RSU 24 would attend their respective schools, barring a superintendents’ agreement.
For the most part, the agreement outlines a return to form for Ellsworth, which ran its own municipal school district prior to when the statewide consolidation experiment was implemented in 2009.
The district will operate as an independent district, including operation of its own bus fleet and administrative offices. It will take over the administration of Hancock County Technical Center, though that school will still be open to all students in Hancock County.
Students from Waltham, Mariaville and Eastbrook would continue to attend Ellsworth High School, as they did before the creation of RSU 24. Hancock and Lamoine students will continue to have school choice for as long as they remain in the district, and students from the other RSU 24 towns will attend Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan.
Under the agreement, the new Ellsworth district must honor faculty contracts for the remainder of their terms, and would continue to pay 32.85 percent of RSU 24 administrative staff salaries until July 2015.
The agreement also outlines how the city and district would reimburse each other for major capital expenditures that occurred while the city was part of RSU 24.
If voters approve withdrawal, the new Ellsworth school district would reimburse the district for 67.15 percent of capital expenditures made at Ellsworth schools and at the technical center. That figure represents the percent of those costs paid by other RSU 24 towns. On the flip side, the district would reimburse Ellsworth for 32.85 percent of capital costs accrued outside of the city, which represents the amount Ellsworth paid for out-of-city projects.
Lukas said that figures had only been drawn up for capital improvements through June 30, 2012, and that additional figures for spending on major projects through June 30, 2014, would need to be accounted for before final reimbursement figures could be made.
But preliminary reimbursement payments can be calculated with data provided in the agreement: RSU 24 spent $144,415 on capital improvements to Ellsworth Schools. So the city would have to reimburse the district $96,974.
Likewise, RSU 24 would reimburse Ellsworth $72,740 — the amount Ellsworth paid toward $221,430 of capital improvements outside the city.
The same percentages will be used to calculate other reimbursements at the time of withdrawal, including payments for technology expenditures, equipment and the undesignated fund balance, all of which will have to be calculated if Ellsworth voters approve the agreement.
Ellsworth City Clerk Heidi Grindle said that if the agreement is approved in Augusta, the referendum question would be placed on the June ballot. State law requires that the total number of votes equal 50 percent or more of the total votes in the most recent gubernatorial election. In Ellsworth, that’s about 1,700.
Grindle said the turnout requirement will likely be met, but “it will be close” because turnouts on non-election years are usually small.
Before the election, Ellsworth also must host a public hearing on the withdrawal question. Lukas said she urges residents to turn out for the yet unscheduled hearing, to be critical and ask questions.
Lukas, who is against Ellsworth’ withdrawal, said that after accounting for major capital projects, the RSU is spending $1.5 million less annually than the combined expenses of the 12 towns before consolidation.
“So in the economic climate we’re in, with major concerns for state funding to education and municipalities, I would encourage voters to think very critically about the economic impact of breaking away from the RSU,” she said.
Mark Rosborough, chairman of the Ellsworth Withdrawal Committee, said Monday that he thinks the city can run a cost-efficient district while restoring local control.
“It comes down to the quality of education, and the cost of education, and keeping our dollars, that are raised here in Ellsworth, in the Ellsworth school system under our guidance,” he said.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.