ELLSWORTH, Maine — Residents in this city as well as the towns of Lamoine and Hancock voted on Tuesday to withdraw from Regional School Unit 24, which includes 12 communities in the area. The votes indicated a resounding rejection in the three communities of policies they feel were forced on them beginning about five years ago when smaller school districts across the state were consolidated in an effort to cut administrative costs.
Now, once the commissioner of Maine’s Department of Education issues a certificate of withdrawal, the three communities will have to set up independent school districts in time for the 2014-2015 school year, which officially starts July 1.
Ellsworth’s City Council and the Boards of Selectmen in Lamoine and Hancock will hold elections so that residents can vote in a new school board in each municipality. Those school boards will be tasked with hiring new superintendents and creating new budgets for next year.
Ellsworth’s withdrawal committee chairman Mark Rosborough said that informal discussions among the three communities about whether they would share services have been ongoing for at least a year. Once school boards are set up, those boards can decide to enter into agreements with each other or with RSU 24.
Food services, transportation and information technology are among the services the communities have discussed sharing, Rosborough said.
“What’s great about the position we’re all in now is that we can voluntarily enter into agreements with one another in such a way that they are mutually helpful,” said Gordon Donaldson, a resident of Lamoine who has been involved with the withdrawal process.
Donaldson also said that he expects future changes to be centered on administrative services and that the new school boards will aim to leave the teaching side of the schools largely intact.
“I wouldn’t expect a lot to change for families and kids,” he said.
According to each community’s withdrawal agreement with the RSU, students will not have to transfer schools next year, even if they live in one of the communities that withdrew and they currently attend a school that is outside their community. The same is true of students who attend school in one of the three communities that withdrew, but live outside that community. Teacher and staff contracts also will be honored next year.
The new school boards will determine whether those agreements will extend beyond the 2014-2015 school year.
RSU 24 superintendent Suzanne Lukas said that for now, it will be business as usual in RSU 24.
“We are still a district until July 1,” she said.
The withdrawal agreements also indicate that the new school districts will continue to help pay for administrative costs in RSU 24 for one year, through June 30, 2015. Though the RSU will eventually have to downsize because it will lose about half its students, regional officials have some time to figure out how they are going to reorganize, Lukas said.
People on both sides of the debate said on Wednesday they were glad the process was over.
“I’m in my 12th year as a selectman and this is probably the biggest thing the town has had to deal with,” said Gary Hunt, a selectman from Hancock who served on that town’s withdrawal committee.
“It was a fascinating process,” the attorney said.
But he added: “I wouldn’t want to do it again.”