ELLSWORTH, Maine — Residents of this community and two other Hancock County towns will vote in June on whether to pursue withdrawal from RSU 24.
Several Ellsworth residents collected enough petition signatures to trigger a referendum on whether to remain within RSU 24, a district that spans a dozen communities from Mariaville in central Hancock County to Winter Harbor.
Ellsworth City Council members agreed Monday night to put the question to voters on June 12, the day of Maine’s primary elections. Residents of Hancock and Lamoine also will vote on whether to petition the state to withdraw from RSU 24 that day.
For David Allen, a longtime school board member from Ellsworth who helped gather the petition signatures, the issue comes down to local control over schools both in Ellsworth and in other communities.
“I think a lot of small towns feel they have lost control over the educational process,” Allen said Tuesday.
RSU 24 became operational in the summer of 2009 amid the wave of school consolidations required as part of the Baldacci administration’s campaign to reduce administrative costs and increase efficiencies in the state’s education system.
But like many of the newly formed regional school units, RSU 24 has not lived up to the expectations of some local residents. The Legislature subsequently made it easier for towns to withdraw from RSUs and dropped the financial penalties on those school districts that have yet to consolidate years after the deadline passed.
Critics of the RSU obtained 343 signatures in support of sending the issue to voters in Ellsworth, slightly more than the 332 required, according to City Clerk Heidi-Noel Grindle. Voters will be asked whether they support “filing a petition for withdrawal with the board of directors of Regional School Unit 24 and with the Commissioner of Education” at zero cost to the town.
Dick Gray, an Ellsworth resident who is vice chairman of the RSU 24 board, said he believes lawmakers were wrong to allow schools to withdraw after so short a time period. Gray said he doesn’t believe many people realize that state and federal funding levels have changed in recent years independent of consolidation and that the RSU has resulted in greater efficiency, albeit with less local control.
He fears that towns moving to withdraw could be disruptive to students and other communities in the RSU.
“We are just getting our feet on the ground and they are going to pull the rug out from under us, or perhaps they will,” Gray said.
The votes in June are only the first step in a lengthy process allowing communities to withdraw from RSUs. If the majority of voters endorse moving forward with withdrawal, a committee will be formed to draft a withdrawal agreement covering all of the complex details of splitting with the RSU.
That agreement must then be approved by the Maine Department of Education. Lastly, local voters must approve the final withdrawal agreement in a second referendum.
Nor is the outcome of the initial vote guaranteed. Steuben voters opted last month not to pursue withdrawal from RSU 24.