WEST BATH, Maine — Residents will vote Tuesday, Jan. 21, whether to withdraw from the school district their town helped to form in 2008.
As part of a 22-step, state-mandated withdrawal process, the town on Monday held a public hearing on West Bath’s possible departure from Regional School Unit 1. About 30 residents attended the meeting at the West Bath School.
Selectman Paula Nelson pointed out the Jan. 21 vote specifically allows West Bath to form a committee to research many important questions.
“It’s a huge process,” she said, noting that she could not guarantee that withdrawing from RSU 1 is “the best idea. I don’t have that information. I cannot make an informed decision at all about what’s in the best interest of not only our town, but our students. … We just need the ability to research that.”
Resident Robert Brown, who started the withdrawal petition, said in October 2013 that the town certified 127 signatures, more than the required 102 (10 percent of the number of residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election).
Local control of costs, school choice and preservation of the town’s school are issues that triggered the withdrawal movement, Brown has said.
If residents approve the referendum by a simple majority vote, negotiations would start between the town and RSU 1, which also includes Bath, Arrowsic, Phippsburg and Woolwich. A four-person withdrawal committee, composed of a West Bath selectman, one of the petitioners, a member of the public, and an RSU 1 board member, would be formed.
As part of the referendum, West Bath will decide whether to allocate $40,000 for expenses related to the process.
The state education commissioner would have to approve a negotiated withdrawal plan, which would then go back to West Bath voters for a second vote. If that vote is held before Jan. 1, 2015, half the number of residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election must participate; a simple majority would be required to confirm withdrawal, according to information provided by the town’s withdrawal committee.
If the vote is held after Jan. 1, 2015, there would be no minimum number of voters, but two-thirds of voters would have to support withdrawal.
Meanwhile, West Bath is suing RSU 1 to recover $1.9 million the town believes it overpaid in the first four years of the school district’s existence. The lawsuit, filed in October 2012, claims West Bath should have been assessed a total of $8.2 million over the course of four years, but instead paid $10.1 million. The suit claims RSU 1 owes West Bath $1.9 million, plus interest.
RSU 1 voters last November approved a $5.2 million bond for improvements at several district schools, although West Bath narrowly defeated the measure. Of that sum, $69,000 is being spent at West Bath’s school for work including restoration of the building roof and security at the front entrance.
RSU 1 owns that school, and all other schools in the district. Many residents have expressed a desire for the school to return to West Bath, if the town leaves the district.
By a 68-17 vote in March 2013, West Bath residents also defeated a new cost-sharing formula that assesses RSU 1 communities on a per-pupil basis. The district as a whole approved the formula, 580-138.
Although subsidies and special education reimbursements had been spread between all five communities, the new formula directs those funds to the actual communities generating the revenues. Bath and Woolwich receive subsidies, while Arrowsic and Phippsburg get a special education reimbursement; West Bath receives neither.
Were subsidy applied to the RSU as a whole, the per-pupil cost would be about $8,600 for each community, compared to the nearly $12,000 West Bath currently pays, according to the withdrawal committee. Arrowsic and Phippsburg each pay about $11,400, Woolwich nearly $8,800 and Bath nearly $7,400, the committee stated.
“It’s an issue of the problems we’ve had in cost-sharing, for West Bath as compared to other members of the RSU, and the increased cost to the taxpayers,” Brown said last October. “… I think it was the tax bite that finally got to us.”
Committee member Abbe Yacoben noted that “if we withdraw, we would then be eligible for some subsidy.”
Brown has also said that West Bath had school choice before, “and it would seem to me that we ought to be able to get it again.”
Resident Jan Driver noted that the state has never succeeded in subsidizing schools at 55 percent, and expressed concern about West Bath receiving any more funds if it withdrew.
She also wondered, with some small towns struggling to maintain their schools because of declining student populations, whether West Bath could handle that problem if its school’s non-resident students were no longer in attendance.
Committee member David Hennessey acknowledged that concern, but noted that RSU 1 might still pay tuition to send students to West Bath.
“We don’t know (if that could happen),” he said. “That’s part of the negotiations. That’s part of what we have to find out.”
RSU 1 parents can send their children to any district elementary school outside of their community, through an application process, on a first-come, first-served basis, and as long as there is room available, RSU 1 Business Manager Ruth Moore explained last fall. Middle school children can attend either Bath Middle School or Woolwich Central School, depending on space.
High school students can only attend Morse High School, unless they have siblings who went to a school outside the district at the time RSU 1 was formed; this “grandfather” policy also applies to students in the lower grades, who would like to attend an elementary or middle school their sibling attended outside the district.
Although parents can send their children out of district, they must pay the tuition for those students themselves, Moore said.
Jonathan Davis, West Bath town administrator, noted last fall that before West Bath joined RSU 1, the town would pay the local tuition cost for a resident student who wanted to go out of district; but if the tuition at that school was higher than the local tuition cost, the parents would have to fund the difference.
Absentee ballots for the referendum are available through Thursday, Jan. 16. Polls will be open at the West Bath Fire Department, 192 State Road, from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. on Jan. 21.