BREWER, Maine — Pocketbooks will feel the pinch no matter how city residents, and those in nine neighboring communities, vote during Tuesday’s Regional School Unit 15 referendum on a plan to consolidate Brewer and four nearby school districts.
“Their taxes will go up,” Penny Peasley, Clifton selectman and RSU 15 planning committee member, said Wednesday. “Either way, they’ll go up, but not as much” if they vote down the proposed school consolidation.
Community and school officials say joining the proposed RSU 15 would cost millions more, and paying state penalties for not joining is the lesser of two evils. The officials are suggesting that residents study the draft plan and seriously weigh their options. Copies of the plan are available at the town halls in all 10 communities as well as online at breweredu.org and at sad63.net.
State Department of Education leaders disagree with some of the information provided in the draft plan, and say the RSU 15 planning committee’s figures are way off the mark.
Brewer, Dedham, Orrington and the member towns of SAD 63 and CSD 8 are working together to create RSU 15 under the state’s new school consolidation law. SAD 63 comprises Holden, Eddington and Clifton, and CSD 8 contains the communities of Amherst, Aurora, Great Pond and Osborn.
Residents in the 10 communities will vote Jan. 27 in a thumbs-up or thumbs-down referendum about joining the new consolidated school district.
Consolidating the central offices of the school units in the proposed district would save about $400,000 annually, but those savings would be more than offset by $2.74 million in projected increases for aligning salaries districtwide in the first three years of operation, according to the draft plan.
Brewer teachers and staffers make much more than their counterparts in the four neighboring school districts, which is the basic reason the projected costs are so high.
“There is no way their district would have to spend that much more on salaries,” David Connerty-Marin, state education spokesman said in an e-mail Wednesday. “The voters out there are going to be making a decision on some very misguided estimates.”
Education Commissioner Susan Gendron wrote a letter in December saying she has serious concerns with the figures.
“I do not agree with the estimates,” she said, adding that the committee’s estimates “fail to take into account several factors.”
Gendron says it is a mistake to say all contracts will go to the same salary schedule. “The law requires a common contract, it does not require that salary scales be identical across the new RSU,” she wrote.
The education commissioner also said that once the new school unit is created, the state is expected to adjust the amount of state funding it provides, which should help to offset the additional costs of implementing the RSU 15 reorganization plan.
“The labor market adjustment for the communities joining with Brewer would increase, not insignificantly,” Connerty-Marin said in a Jan. 9 e-mail. “This means that much of the added cost for the teachers would be part of the EPS [Essential Programs and Services] calculation, and therefore the state would pick up a substantial portion of that cost. Brewer will only pick up 43 percent of the ‘over EPS’ costs in the district.”
The exact EPS labor market adjustment cannot be figured until the new school unit is created, Gendron said.
Brewer city leaders, at a public meeting held Jan. 8, wholeheartedly disagreed with her statements, and community leaders in Holden, Eddington and Orrington have officially voiced their opposition to the measure.
Clifton selectmen were to discuss the issue Wednesday night, Peasley said.
If voters reject the proposal, each community will be assessed a penalty in the form of reduced state funding.
Brewer would lose about $244,000 for not joining RSU 15; Dedham would face a penalty of around $55,210; SAD 63 would face a penalty of nearly $157,000; and CSD 8 would lose $14,214.
Of the SAD 63 penalty amount, the 750 or so Clifton residents would be responsible for around $21,712, Peasley said.
“Your vote will make a difference,” she said.
Peasley is planning to circulate a flier in Clifton with basic information about the decision facing voters. She said one problem she is noticing is that residents don’t understand what they are voting on.
“I talked to a person this afternoon that didn’t even know about the RSU,” she said. “They don’t know.”