July 19, 2018
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School choice conflict erupts at Maine school district meeting

Christine LaPado-Breglia | Lincoln County News
Christine LaPado-Breglia | Lincoln County News
From left: RSU 12 board of directors Vice Chair Sandra Devaney of Palermo, Chair Jerry Nault of Windsor, Superintendent Howard Tuttle and Administrative Assistant Leslie Burgess attend the board’s April 12 meeting at Chelsea Elementary School.
By Christine LaPado-Breglia, Lincoln County News

A Maine town’s petition to limit school-choice payments sparked a debate during a regular RSU 12 board of directors meeting at Chelsea Elementary School on April 12, with some residents questioning the legality and cost of the proposal.

The petition would restrict Alna’s commitment to pay for K-8 tuition, up to a certain amount, to public schools. The town will continue to pay tuition for high school students attending either public or private schools. The change will take effect June 30.

Alna resident Jonathan Villeneuve said there are “still a lot of unanswered questions” and questioned “the legality of [the petition], the legality of the wording.”

“Careful deliberation and study would avoid those pitfalls,” Villeneuve said, adding that the financial impact on each of the RSU 12 towns needs to be determined.

[Maine town votes to limit K-8 school choice payments]

Shanon Cotta, also of Alna, spoke of “the potential of dividing families and siblings.” Cotta expressed concern that some family members — those born after June 30 — would not be able to attend the same school as their siblings.

Ralph Hilton, an Alna resident who submitted the original petition for the school-choice referendum, said he would like to see the board vote yes on the first reading of the petition. “Therefore, it will be here next month for the second reading … Or it won’t get a fair hearing. It’ll die,” he said.

Board member Christopher Johnson of Somerville said he was concerned about how the change to the school-choice policy would affect “students in the other schools, in other towns.”

Johnson said he was concerned about “down-the-road effects” of the change, including “costs that could be incurred because of legal challenges.”

Board member Richard DeVries of Westport Island questioned how residency would be determined for potential private-school students living in Alna.

RSU 12 Superintendent Howard Tuttle said residency would be established if the parent and child are living and sleeping in Alna.

“We are just trying to determine, do they actually live there?” Tuttle said. Documents such as a voter registration, a rental agreement and car registration are among those that would be accepted, Tuttle said.

“I feel that Alna has done its job,” Johnson said. “We owe them an answer … I’d like to see us have a subcommittee to identify questions and find answers.”

[School choice costs spark turmoil in small Maine town]

The first reading of the petition, which needed 7,406 weighted votes to pass by the necessary two-thirds majority, passed with 7,943 votes. The weighted system is based on the population of the district’s seven towns.

The board formed a five-member ad hoc committee to research the Alna school-choice question, with a two-week turnaround time to come up with its conclusions, as RSU 12 board Chair Jerry Nault pointed out.

Board member Keith Marple of Whitefield said, “It seems like two weeks is unreasonable to do that work,” calling such a time frame “a rush job.”

[Maine town muzzles public comment at meetings after school choice conflict]

The ad hoc research committee had its first meeting April 16 at the RSU 12 central office in Somerville.

“It was obvious that we had not provided enough background information to the board,” RSU 12 board member Barbara Baston, an Alna resident, said in an April 13 phone interview. “I think we made assumptions that they understood more than they apparently do about the referendum from Alna’s point of view.”

Baston said, “the entire board … will vote again [in May] on sending Alna’s referendum question to all the voters in the RSU 12 in June … This is the procedure for change to the consolidation agreement.”

“We thought it would be smoother approval than it turned out to be,” Baston said. “I hope that the committee process will clarify things for the rest of the board so that people will feel comfortable voting in May.”

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