ELLSWORTH, Maine — Tensions are rising at the negotiation table between Regional School Unit 24 and Ellsworth, which hopes to withdraw from the school district and run its own educational affairs by the start of the 2013-2014 school year.
On Tuesday, the two camps came together for the first time since both sides crafted initial proposals for what the divorce between the RSU and its largest municipality would look like.
Stress levels were high going into the meeting, with Ellsworth’s withdrawal committee upset that it had not received the district’s proposal until about 4:30 in the afternoon, just two hours before it was to start negotiating. The committee gave the RSU its first draft several weeks ago, according to committee Chairman Mark Rosborough.
Rosborough has accused the RSU of “stonewalling” the city, which is trying to follow a tight timetable to get the withdrawal bid on the November ballot. He was frustrated at the end of Wednesday’s meeting because no board member had spoken to any of the questions or concerns he had with the board’s proposal.
“We’ve had a back and forth with the administration, and no board members have participated,” he said at the end of Tuesday’s meeting. “I’m wondering: At what point will people be willing to sit down and negotiate?”
The withdrawal committee’s proposal includes provisions for the new Ellsworth school administrative unit, or SAU, to take over the reins of education for Ellsworth students on July 1, 2013. The city would take back ownership of Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School, Ellsworth High School and Hancock County Technical Center, and would honor the contracts of RSU 24 employees.
It also calls for the new Ellsworth SAU to accept nonresident students within the capacity of its buildings. The city would take over transportation of Ellsworth students without changing any bus schedules or stop locations, and would continue to pay into RSU 24 Superintendent Suzanne Lukas’ salary and benefits package until her contract expires.
The school board has asked the proposed RSU to refund the district for capital purchases and investments in technology and equipment that have benefited Ellsworth’s schools, and that the new Ellsworth SAU will accept any K-8 students from Mariaville and any high school students from Eastbrook, Mariaville and Waltham so as to avoid any need for new construction at Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan.
Rosborough said the city would be willing to reimburse the district for money it spent on Ellsworth, so long as the district reimbursed Ellsworth for the money it spent that benefited other towns in the RSU.
But Lukas said it’s not that simple, and that it wouldn’t be fair to the other 11 communities to take a loss because Ellsworth decided to withdraw. Essentially, Ellsworth is choosing to forgo the benefits of RSU membership, she said.
“The folks of Ellsworth did contribute to capital improvements in other towns,” she said. “However, they are choosing to leave, and not have the access to those improvements anymore, by the process of withdrawal.”
The RSU also proposed to maintain control over transportation, IT services, food service and special education administration in the new Ellsworth SAU for five years, which Rosborough and the withdrawal committee adamantly oppose. They say the whole point of secession is to take control, not to own buildings while outsourcing services to the RSU.
Lukas said the new Ellsworth SAU will have large hurdles to clear in a short time after it elects a school board and prepares to go it alone for the first time in three years. The effort to keep control over some services is an attempt to ease Ellsworth’s burden, she said.
“If there are pieces of our operation that are working really well, it might behoove you to take on our position for five years,” while focusing on other aspects of school district management, she said Tuesday night.
No decisions were made at Tuesday’s meeting, a fact that left Rosborough and at least one board member flustered.
“I’m tired of just listening to rhetoric,” said Harold White, an RSU 24 board member from Ellsworth. “Can’t we come up with a plan and vote, yes or no?”
David Bridgham, the RSU 24 business manager, told the withdrawal committee that while it may be in a hurry, the RSU can only move so fast.
“A month is not that long to do everything we’re trying to do and we’re dealing with identical requests from Hancock and Lamoine [which are also trying to withdraw from the RSU],” he said. “And with all due respect, people have lives and jobs.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.