Bethel selectmen endorse SAD 44 cost-sharing formula

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BETHEL — Selectmen on Monday unanimously endorsed a proposed School Administrative District 44 cost-sharing formula that district residents will vote on Nov. 6.

“I move that we support it wholeheartedly,” Selectman Don Bennett said.

Selectmen from Newry, Greenwood and Woodstock have also endorsed the formula proposal.

Some officials and district residents hope the change, which is more favorable to Newry, will encourage those residents to remain in the district, rather than continue their process to withdraw from the district.

Two previous proposals to change the formula were defeated by voters, the most recent one by a narrow margin in November 2017.

Assessments to the SAD 44 towns are based 100 percent on property valuation, leaving Newry with the highest share, at about $3 million of the roughly $8.4 million total. The town is home to Sunday River Resort.

If approved, the formula change would be phased in over nine years. For the first two years, assessments would be based 95 percent on valuation and 5 percent on student population. For the following three years, they would be based 90 percent on valuation and 10 percent on population. And the next three years it would be an 88/12 percent split, and finally shift to an 85/15 percent split for 2028 and beyond.

The proposal also carries a major change from one that was narrowly defeated last year: If the change is approved, its implementation would be contingent on Newry residents voting to end their withdrawal process. The vote on whether or not to terminate the process would happen in March 2019.

Negotiations between Newry and SAD 44 to come up with a withdrawal agreement for Newry residents to vote on are stalled. Such an agreement is required for withdrawal to proceed.

If Newry were to vote to withdraw from SAD 44 there would likely be a $2 million tax shift from Newry to Bethel and Woodstock, according to district officials. The last proposed withdrawal agreement from Newry would have spread that shift over 10 years.

Bennett said at Monday’s meeting that some residents of district towns are not sympathetic to Newry because they believe the town is “rich” and should continue to pay as it does. But he urged them to look at the situation from Newry’s standpoint. The town has 38 percent of SAD 44’s total valuation but only 4 percent of the students, according to district information.

A formula change, Bennett said, “is not necessarily a perfect solution, but a way to keep the district together and ultimately keep everyone friends.”

Allen Connors, managing partner of the Bethel Inn & Country Club, said the amount Newry pays is “exorbitant.” He noted that even if a change is approved, Newry would still be assessed about $2.7 million.

Board Chairman Peter Southam said that while Bethel and Woodstock would pay more under a new formula, the formula would still apply to all and if Newry gained many more students it would pay more money.

“The same rule applies to every town,” he said.

Selectman Andy Whitney, noting that if the formula is approved it would be contingent on a vote by Newry residents to stop the withdrawal process, said that theoretically the town could start a new withdrawal process after a few years.

Southam said “everything political is always in flux.” 

Jessie Perkins, executive director of the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce, said any town in the district could start a withdrawal process.

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