Voters read the budget at the SAD 45 budget meeting at Washburn Elementary on in this June 22 file photo. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

WASHBURN, Maine — After 53 years of sending its students to SAD 45 schools in Washburn, the town of Perham wants to leave the district to escape what it sees as a high tax burden.

Maine Department of Education spokesperson Kelli Deveaux confirmed that Perham was in the process of withdrawing, though the department declined to weigh in on the matter as it was a “local decision.”

Deveaux said the earliest Perham could leave the district would be July 1, 2022 — in time for the 2022-23 school year. That would require Perham residents to approve a withdrawal agreement in a referendum no later than Nov. 30, 2021.

The decision by Perham officials to break a decades-old connection to the neighboring towns of Wade and Washburn reflects a dissatisfaction with district funding rules that has been seen across Maine in recent years.

In Maine, district funding formulas are based on property valuation. A municipality’s share of the tax burden increases with new value, regardless of student population. Perham residents will pay about 23 percent of district taxes in this year’s school budget, while SAD 45 Superintendent Larry Worcester said Perham youth comprise about 12 percent of the student population.

John Rasmussen, chairman of Perham’s withdrawal committee and selectboard, said the town had been working to withdraw for about two years and wanted to leave as soon as possible. He said the fault lies in Maine’s rules on school funding, which he said had caused tax increases for Perham that forced them to cut town services.

“This is nothing against the town of Washburn,” Rasmussen said. “It’s simply in the best financial interest of our taxpayers.”

Under Maine’s educational financing system, there is no way for the district to change those numbers, Worcester said.

“You can’t blame (Perham). They are trying to reduce their tax burden, and this is really the only way they’ve been able to come up with that might be able to do that,” Worcester said.

For the 2020-21 school year, Perham residents will pay approximately $293,000 in property taxes, $14,000 more than during the 2019-20 school year.

At SAD 45’s budget meeting in June, Perham Selectman David Heald complained that the district had said there was no new tax increase, while Perham and Wade’s taxes had gone up. Heald voted nay on every public vote at the meeting except the vote to adjourn — he was the only one in dissent each time.

In his decades in Washburn, Worcester said just the past year had been the first time he had heard about the potential for Perham to withdraw.

Deveaux said Perham held a referendum vote to begin withdrawing from SAD 45 on July 9, 2019, after collecting the necessary signatures to begin the process. She said Commissioner of Education Pender Makin had notified Perham to start drafting the withdrawal agreement on Sept. 9, 2019, a process which is ongoing. SAD 45 must concur with the agreement before it goes to Makin for approval.

If Perham leaves, Wade and Washburn taxpayers will foot the SAD 45 local funding bill. Worcester remained hopeful that Perham could pay tuition for students to go to Washburn schools, which would “soften the blow.” Under the tuition process, a municipality pays for a certain number of students to attend a school district it is not part of.

“We would definitely like to have as many as we can,” Worcester said.

Perham’s leaving would also require changes to SAD 45’s governing structure. With two of the 11 seats on the board allocated for Perham, the board would likely be altered to increase Wade’s presence, Worcester said.

SAD 45 and Perham officials said the process of withdrawing from a school district is complex and arduous. Worcester said there are numerous hoops to jump through, and that state education officials involved in the split have compared the procedure to a divorce.

Rasmussen said the select board’s withdrawal agreement included provisions for Perham students who wanted to stay in SAD 45 schools. He also said Perham had agreed to preliminary tuition agreements with Woodland Public Schools and RSU 39 (Caribou), though those agreements can’t be finalized until the withdrawal process is further along.

Perham joins a number of Aroostook communities that have withdrawn from a school district in recent years. Portage Lake left SAD 32 in 2012, Eagle Lake left SAD 27 in 2018 and Limestone left RSU 39 in 2019.