WEST BATH, Maine — The fate of a lawsuit pitting West Bath against three other communities in its school district could be determined as early as May 7, when Sagadahoc County Superior Court Justice Andrew Horton will hear oral arguments and consider motions to dismiss.
The town of West Bath is suing Regional School Unit 1 and three of the four other communities in the district in an attempt to recoup $1.9 million officials say the town overpaid the district during its first four years as a consolidated system.
“It’s a substantial amount, $1.9 million,” Town Administrator Jonathan Davis said Wednesday. “We feel that needs to be addressed. If it was any other town, they’d feel the same way.”
But the school district, the city of Bath, and the towns of Woolwich and Arrowsic have filed motions to dismiss, arguing that the five communities agreed on the cost-sharing formula for each of the four years in question. Davis said Phippsburg also was overcharged, but “a not significant amount” and so was not included in the suit.
RSU 1 has no ability to pay the $1.9 million, said David Ray of Bernstein Shur Sawyer and Nelson, which represents the city of Bath, so the communities named in the suit — Arrowsic, Bath and Woolwich — would have to pay through what he presumes would be some kind of funding formula. Bath, he said, would likely bear the brunt of the payment.
“It’s kind of like trying to get a second bite of the apple — or maybe a second, third and fourth bite,” he said.
RSU 1 was created in September 2007 through special legislation, LD 910, that consolidated the five communities into a school district.
That legislation included a cost-sharing formula based one-third on a town’s pupil count, one-third on the town’s population and one-third on the town’s property valuation.
But in 2012, several towns argued that the formula was only applied to the district’s costs that exceed the state’s Essential Programs and Services model, which the Department of Education uses to determine state subsidies for education. The rest was calculated according to the state’s EPS funding methods — a decision based on an oral legal opinion, versus a written legal opinion, Davis said — when the district was created.
In March 2012, the board changed its formula so that all costs are calculated through the “one-third” formula.
But with that change, West Bath argued that it should have paid $1.9 less over the previous four years.
“Our primary defense is that these were decisions made mutually among all the constituent members for several years, including West Bath,” Ray said, and the funding allocations were presented back to each of the communities each year and approved.
“A decision was made by the [school board], ratified that year and in each subsequent year by the communities, including West Bath,” he said. “This is an effort by West Bath to say, ‘Let me go back and rethink it.’ And it’s too late. The decision was made, the funds were made and the funds have been spent. Here we are, four years down the road.”
But David King, chairman of the Woolwich Board of Selectmen, said Wednesday afternoon that, as a property owner in both Woolwich and West Bath, the West Bath Board of Selectmen “is doing the correct thing by pursuing [the lawsuit]. They’re totally within their rights to pursue it. Fair is fair. The law was not followed, and the law should have been followed. There was a very specific law that spelled out how the funding was supposed to be done, and it was not followed.”
Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, voters in the five communities decided in a March referendum on a new cost-sharing arrangement that assesses communities through a cost-per-pupil formula.
Davis said the new formula, determined through a “very long” process, is not in West Bath’s favor — the town will play approximately 24 percent more than last year, or $2.6 million.
But he added, “We’re willing to pay that, regardless [of the outcome of the suit]. … We want to participate in the RSU. We have great schools, especially our elementary school. We’re going to proceed with the lawsuit, but we want to move forward in the best direction operationally with the schools.”
Calls to RSU 1 Superintendent Patrick Manuel and Board Chairman Tim Harkins were not immediately returned.