BURLINGTON, Maine — Residents voted overwhelmingly Saturday to form a committee that will investigate withdrawing from the Howland-area School Administrative District 31 school system to give town parents school choice, officials said Sunday.
The 96-10 vote, during an election that ran all day Saturday, was among the busiest in recent memory for the population 350 northern Penobscot County town, Town Clerk Suzanne Shorey said.
“We were very pleased with the vote,” Second Selectwoman Penelope Kneeland said Sunday. “We did a lot of work talking to people, explaining the information. We held a public hearing. It was quite an overwhelming majority.”
The idea of withdrawing from SAD 31 largely originated from the high cost residents pay to send students there, according to Kneeland, who favors investigating withdrawal. She placed the cost at about $11,500 per student for 37 students.
“I think that when we presented the numbers, regarding how much more Burlington pays per student than any other people in the district, that got people’s attention,” Kneeland said.
Since about 2004, Burlington has had a thorny relationship with the other towns in SAD 31, mostly over the school district’s financial issues, including a $1.1 million loan the school board took out in 2011 to correct some financial mismanagement. The board needed to cut 29 jobs to make up for the shortfall.
“I think that we are at odds with the leadership of the board,” Kneeland said. “We don’t have much of a voice. We have two members of the board, and we get outvoted on everything — mostly financial things. But the major reason is the very high cost for a very small town which is getting very old and gray. There are a lot of people having a hard time paying taxes.”
Town officials believe that, with student populations shrinking across northern Maine, school districts would compete for the town’s students, allowing town officials to get a very good deal for taxpayers, Kneeland said.
SAD 31 serves Burlington, Edinburg, Enfield, Howland, Maxfield and Passadumkeag. Its neighbors are Regional School Unit 67, which serves Chester, Lincoln and Mattawamkeag, and SAD 30, which serves Lee, Springfield, Webster and Winn.
Saturday’s vote begins a long process that, if residents opt for the withdrawal, won’t end for at least two years, Kneeland said. Once the committee is formed, Kneeland said she expects the investigative process to take about a year. That would involve many public hearings, she said.
The withdrawal would need to start July 1 — the date a new fiscal year begins — in the year residents choose for it to occur, Kneeland said. The town and district also would need to formulate a plan to allow students to remain in SAD 31 for an additional year beyond the changeover if the students or parents opt for it.
The process might end with Burlington resembling Lowell, which sends students to SAD 31 and RSU 67, with one student attending high school in Bangor. That arrangement probably would work best for parents who live closer to Lincoln than Howland, the home of Penobscot Valley High School and the interconnected Hichborn Middle School, Kneeland said.
The district’s elementary students go to Enfield Station School in Enfield.
Selectmen will inform SAD 31 and Commissioner James Rier of the Maine Department of Education of the election results and will begin selecting withdrawal committee members, Kneeland said.