BUCKFIELD — Voters will be given a second chance to vote on the town’s withdrawal from the RSU 10 school district at a ballot election that may be held earlier than municipal elections in June.
A petition requesting the reconsideration of the withdrawal measure approved by voters last June was submitted to the Town Office with 121 valid signatures last Thursday, according to Acting Town Manager Cindy Dunn. Petitioners needed at least 91 signatures to put the measure on the ballot, she said.
Selectmen are expected to accept the petition at their next meeting, Feb. 25. Although Dunn said the election had to be held within 60 days of accepting the petition, Selectboard Chairman Warren Wright said he believed selectmen could put the issue on the ballot for the June primary elections.
At its meeting Wednesday evening, Buckfield’s Withdrawal Committee scheduled a March 12 public hearing to outline its goals. The committee has been meeting since September, with little to show for its efforts.
Voters approved withdrawing from RSU 10 by a comfortable margin last June. Supporters of the measure claimed that soaring school costs in the district were not paired with a comparable increase in the quality of education.
Since then, however, people who voted to pull out of the 12-town school district have changed their minds, according to Maida Demers-Dobson, a former RSU 10 school board member and lead petition organizer.
“Virtually everybody I talked to said the same thing: ‘we’re not feeling that this is something we should be doing at this point,'” she said.
Many of the people she spoke to while collecting signatures reported feeling that the process was not worth the town’s time if neighboring Hartford and Sumner were not also pursuing withdrawal, Demers-Dobson reported.
Prior to its 2009 consolidation into the larger RSU 10, the three towns formed SAD 39. When voters passed the withdrawal measure, there was a general perception that Hartford and Sumner would also pull out and the former district could reform, a position encouraged by withdrawal supporters.
That scenario never materialized.
Sumner voters rejected a withdrawal measure at the polls in November, and no formal drive to leave the district has been reported in Hartford.
That leaves Buckfield to come up with its own alternatives, including paying tuition for students to attend neighboring districts and setting up an independent administrative unit or a mixture of the two complicated and potentially expensive propositions.
Judy Berg, a Withdrawal Committee member and steadfast supporter of the withdrawal process, said she was disappointed the issue was being sent back to voters.
“I don’t understand why; I think they should let the process run its course,” Berg said.
The committee should be allowed to continue its work in order to determine whether the town’s experience in the past four years of RSU 10 have been worth it.
Though she initially thought Buckfield would need its two neighbors to successfully withdraw, Berg said the withdrawal options, including setting up an autonomous administrative unit or tuitioning students to outside districts, make her believe the town could pull out on its own.
One of the committee’s mistakes was not putting together clear goals early on, a misstep she hopes to remedy at the March public hearing, Berg said.