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Both sides using numbers to sway voters in Ellsworth school withdrawal debate

Posted Oct. 31, 2013, at 3:46 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 01, 2013, at 7:41 a.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Residents here have been fed a steady stream of figures and facts on pamphlets and signs and at public hearings about how they should vote on Nov. 5.

On Election Day, Ellsworth is one of three communities — the others are Lamoine and Hancock — that will decide whether to stay in or withdraw from Regional School Unit 24, the 12-community district that is in its fifth year of operation.

Advocates on both sides of the RSU 24 debate have tried to demystify the complicated school budget for potential voters to help them figure out which decision is better for taxpayers.

But both sides acknowledge that the numbers can be cut in different ways depending on the story the person with the calculator wants to tell.

It’s understandable that some are confused.

Here are some of the numbers and facts that voters are being asked to take into account:

In total, the communities in RSU 24 are paying more in local taxes for their share of education now than they were five years ago.

In the 2008-2009 school year, the last year before the school unit was formed, the 12 communities that now make up RSU 24 spent a combined total of $20.2 million on education.

This year, within the school unit, they spent $25.4 million.

The increase is not necessarily because of consolidation. It is due in part to the fact that state subsidies for education have gone down consistently over the last five years. The amount the state gives a city or town as an education subsidy is determined by a complicated formula that takes property value and school age population into account, among other factors.

In the year before the 12 communities consolidated, they received about $7.1 million combined from the state. Five years later, the school unit members received only about $3.8 million combined — or $3.3 million less. The state subsidy has been entirely eliminated in four of the school unit’s 12 towns — Eastbrook, Hancock, Sorrento and Steuben.

The RSU 24 superintendent has argued that consolidation saved the 12 communities $9.5 million since its start. That figure was calculated by comparing the total budget of the school unit each year to the combined budgets of the 12 communities during the year before the unit was created. The year before consolidation, the combined budgets totaled about $33.7 million. In the 2013-14 school year, the school unit’s budget was $32.6 million.

Every year the school unit’s overall budget has been between $1 million and $3 million less than the combined budgets of the 12 communities before they consolidated. When the savings for each year are added up, the result is $9.5 million in total savings.

What also is true is that those leading the Ellsworth movement to withdraw cannot say for sure that forming an independent school district would save taxpayers money.

Rather, the argument for withdrawal has crystallized around local control: Is it important for residents’ tax dollars to be controlled by a school board made up of residents from their town? Or should the school board continue to be made up of representatives from each of the 12 communities to represent the interests of the larger region?

The school unit is asking for more time to prove itself and arguing that withdrawal would be a step backward at a time when the pressures placed on schools by the state and federal government are growing. Advocates of withdrawal say the schools worked well before consolidation and they should be able to replicate that success.

Ellsworth residents can vote at their designated polling place between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 5.

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