Searsport residents question withdrawal process during public hearing
Searsport — Searsport residents questioned the withdrawal process for the town, as well as the implications of leaving or not leaving Regional School Unit 20 during a public hearing Thursday, Feb. 20.
Approximately 30 residents were in attendance for the 45-minute hearing to ask questions about withdrawal prior to a vote on March 4 when voters will decide whether they wish to officially begin the process of leaving RSU 20.
Aaron Fethke, chairman of the select board, explained to residents that they will not only vote on whether they want to pursue withdrawal in March, they will also authorize the withdrawal committee to spend up to $500 on incidental costs and town officials to spend up to $15,000 for legal costs associated with the effort to leave RSU 20.
Before opening the public hearing, Fethke cautioned residents that officials would be unable to provide specific information regarding the costs or savings associated with withdrawal, as those questions would be addressed as part of the work the withdrawal committee would complete when it drafts a plan to leave RSU 20.
After explaining to residents what they will be voting on next week, Fethke opened the public hearing to comments from residents. One of the first residents to speak was Anne Crimaudo who asked what would happen if the withdrawal article does not pass on March 4, and whether there are restrictions on when the process could restart.
Tony Bagley, a Searsport resident and chairman of the RSU 20 board of directors, said there are no restrictions on when the process could restart. He explained that the withdrawal petitions would need to be recirculated throughout the town before another vote could be scheduled.
Questions were also asked about what would happen if Searsport residents vote against the petition while other towns in the district withdraw. Bagley explained that any towns that do not vote to withdraw would remain in RSU 20.
In reference to a question posed by Fethke about dissolving RSU 20, Bagley said he spoke with the law firm Drummond Woodsum and was told that all eight of the towns in the district could draft one withdrawal plan to dissolve the district. However, that plan would include a contingency that all eight towns have to vote in favor of the plan in order for it to take effect, Bagley said.
As discussion continued, resident Charles Plourde reminded attendees at the public hearing that the town is in the early stages of the withdrawal process and that the upcoming vote would create a committee to begin looking at options to leave RSU 20.
“This vote is only a vote to establish a committee to see what's the best way for us to educate our kids,” he said.
Another question posed by Crimaudo dealt with ownership of the schools in the town. She asked if RSU 20 would still own the buildings if Searsport residents vote to leave the district, or if the town would own the schools.
Bagley explained that all of the buildings in the district are property of RSU 20; however, as part of the withdrawal process, the withdrawal committee would negotiate with the board of directors to acquire the buildings and other assets, such as buses.
One resident then asked if the town would have to buy back its schools from RSU 20. Bagley responded that while RSU 20 does currently own the buildings, if the district wishes to retain ownership of those buildings, it also retains the debt service on the schools. If the building is no longer used for educational purposes the owner of the building could be required to pay that debt immediately and all tax-free interest back to the investors that has occurred since the start of the bond.
“Right now, to have debt on your building is kind of a good thing when you're negotiating for your building,” Bagley said.
After a question was asked about how far along the other towns in the district were in their efforts to leave RSU 20, Bagley commented that he felt Searsport and Stockton Springs were looking at withdrawing for educational purposes as opposed to purely financial reasons.
“I feel as though the towns of Stockton [Springs] and Searsport are going through withdrawal for the right reasons, and that's education,” he said.
While most of the comments aired during the public hearing related to specific questions about the withdrawal process, resident Faith Garrold openly spoke against the effort. Garrold said her opposition was based on a number of factors, but those included the fact that she believed the effort began based on incorrect information that the RSU 20 superintendent could close a school.
Garrold also commented that she didn't feel the district has been given a chance to work.
She also noted that the problems the district is facing are not related to what is happening in the schools; rather the issue is with the board of directors and the state.
“We have a dysfunctional board who as late as last week will not even agree on common goals. How do we fix that?” Garrold said.
The state's dysfunction, Garrold said, is largely related to its inability to fairly and equitably distribute subsidies.
Finallly, Garrold said before the town looks at withdrawal, she would like to make sure that the current organization of RSU 20 and the board cannot work, and that Searsport will be able to afford to educate its students.
After Garrold finished speaking, a point was made that Searsport does not need to rush its withdrawal process.
Bagley responded that under state statute a withdrawal committee has 90 days to submit a plan, but the committees can request extensions. He also stated that he felt that at some point a town will withdraw from RSU 20.
“I'll stick my neck out and say somebody, before it's done, is gonna withdraw from the RSU. I almost guarantee it. The dissolving of RSU 20 is at its beginning stages. I do truly believe that,” he said.
Residents in Searsport will vote on officially beginning the withdrawal process Tuesday, March 4, at the Public Safety Building on Union Street.
Ben Holbrook is a reporter for The Republican Journal covering general news.
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