ELLSWORTH, Maine — Residents on Tuesday got their first chance to weigh in on an agreement between Ellsworth and Regional School Unit 24 for the city to leave the district; but those who spoke didn’t get the answers they were looking for.
“The public is asking questions we can’t answer yet,” said Mark Rosborough, chairman of the Ellsworth Withdrawal Committee, at the public forum held at the Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School. “And they may be questions we can’t address in the future, either.”
The withdrawal committee negotiated the agreement with the RSU over a nine-month period that began after Ellsworth residents voted last June to pursue withdrawal and ended in March, when the Department of Education gave the agreement conditional approval.
Residents in November will vote on whether to approve the agreement, which gives a baseline of criteria by which the town will leave the district. It outlines how physical resources will be divided; how a new Ellsworth school administrative unit, or SAU, would provide continuity in education; and how both sides would be made whole for money spent while Ellsworth was part of the RSU.
What it does not outline is what a new Ellsworth school district would look like. It does not present a picture of an SAU that voters can easily compare with RSU 24. Those decisions will have to be made by a school board, which can only be convened if the city votes to seceded from the district.
“If someone votes for withdrawal, we don’t really know what we’re voting for,” said Betsy Beardsley, an Ellsworth resident, at the hearing. “We only know what we’re voting against.”
Dawn Hudson, a member of the RSU 24 Board and of the Ellsworth Withdrawal Committee, said it’s important for voters to realize that a new school district could be whatever they want it to be. But before they can begin the work of building a new district, they have to decide, at the ballot box, that they want to leave the RSU.
“This committee’s purpose was only to come together with a plan to effect withdrawal,” she said. “This isn’t a total package, it’s part of a process. The community will have to decide what they want to achieve, and whether they think they can achieve that within this agreement.”
Proponents of secession have argued that Ellsworth should leave the RSU in order to regain local control from a sprawling district of 12 towns stretching from Mariaville to Steuben. Ellsworth operated its own municipal school district before consolidation, and they say it can do so again.
Critics, including the administration of RSU 24, say the district has reaped savings of $1.5 million annually compared with the 12 towns operating individually before consolidation in 2009.
“Those of us who work for the RSU think it’s been effective,” said Superintendent Suzanne Lukas after the hearing Tuesday. She outlined savings created in special education, food services and other areas that are only possible by banding together.
Those savings programs “have been both effective and efficient, and we don’t want to see them disrupted,” she said.
Residents who sought exact dollar figures to compare and contrast on Tuesday quickly learned those figures aren’t available. However, the sides have agreed that Ellsworth will reimburse the RSU for 67.15 percent of money spent on capital expenditures and other investments made in Ellsworth while the city was a member of the RSU. That figure represents the percent of those costs paid by other RSU 24 towns.
On the flip side, the RSU will reimburse Ellsworth for 32.85 percent of expenses accrued outside the city, which represents the amount Ellsworth paid to benefit other schools.
Rosborough and Hudson said that between now and the November election, the withdrawal committee will put together figures, scenarios and potential plans for a post-consolidation future in an effort to help voters decide what they want.
According to the Maine law governing withdrawal from an RSU, Ellsworth will need to hold at least one more public forum on the withdrawal question. But both sides are gearing up to campaign over the summer, and it’s likely there will be more informational meetings than required by law.
“There’s still a lot of work that has to be done,” Rosborough said.
Hancock and Lamoine also voted to pursue withdrawal from RSU 24 last June. Each town will hold a public forum on its withdrawal agreement next week. Lamoine’s will be held at 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 20, at Lamoine Consolidated School. Hancock’s will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 22, at Hancock Grammar School.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.