Did selectmen jump the gun on school tax shift vote?

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BETHEL — School Administrative District 44 directors have set a districtwide vote for Nov. 7 on changing the cost-sharing formula, which would shift some of Newry’s school tax burden to the other three towns.

They also set a public hearing for 6:30 p.m. Oct. 16.

Last week, Bethel selectmen talked strategy on how to promote the change.

But Scott Cole of Bethel was critical of the plan to put it out for a vote now, arguing that this spring a group including himself and state Rep. Fran Head, R-Bethel, had “beaten” legislation Newry had supported to allow for “binding mediation” in a stalled school withdrawal process.

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Newry and SAD 44 are in a stalemate over negotiations to produce a withdrawal agreement, which would go before Newry voters.

The Nov. 7 question will feature a proposal selectmen and town managers in the four towns created. And unlike last year, when a similar vote failed, those boards are expected to support the plan.

The cost-sharing formula for the $11 million school budget is calculated entirely on property values, resulting in Newry paying nearly 40 percent of the local share. The town has about two dozen students. If Newry withdraws, the financial impact on the other towns would be significant.

The formula proposal defeated last November would have factored student population into the equation, initially basing town shares 90 percent on valuation and 10 percent on population, changing two years later to an 85/15 ratio. The change would have shifted some of Newry’s share to the other towns over the three years.

The new proposal would spread the impact over eight years.

The plan calls for a 95/5 ratio the first two years; a 90/10 ratio the next three years; an 88/12 ratio the next two years; and an 85/15 ratio beginning the eighth year.

In Bethel, that would mean the tax rate would increase an average of roughly 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value during that time, according to Town Manager Christine Landes’ calculations.

In dollars, Landes’ estimate shows an increase under the 95/5 scenario of $92,343 from the current $5.91 million Bethel pays overall for school, town and county combined.

The 90/10 split would mean a total increase of $184,686 from the fiscal year 2018 figure; 88/12, $221,623; and 85/15, $277,029.

The figures all assume the budget remains at the fiscal year 2018 level.

Bethel has 311 students.

The new plan was approved last month by a special committee comprised of representatives from all the towns.

In limbo

Newry’s effort to bring about a town vote on withdrawal remains in limbo.

LD 1336, a bill that would allow for binding mediation for stalled withdrawal agreement negotiations, is also stalled in the Legislature. It was sent back to the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee by the Legislature in June to be carried over until January. The committee had originally recommended unanimously that the Legislature pass the bill.

Last month, Newry Town Administrator Amy Bernard said there is some question whether the bill “will come back out of committee at all.” She said labor unions had concerns about LD 1336 because it contains the “binding mediation” language. If the bill did come back, she said, it might lack that key language.

It was in the time frame shortly after LD 1336 had been recommended for passage that the decision was made locally to revisit the cost-sharing formula change.

Some had seen the possibility of immediate passage of LD 1336 as a motivator for the other district towns to change the formula to favor Newry, rather than risk the withdrawal negotiations finally producing a withdrawal agreement on which Newry residents could vote — and possibly approve.

But Cole said Monday that instead of the district voting on a new formula in November, the strategy should be to force Newry to return to the Legislature to make its case, rather than approve a new formula that will force higher costs on the other towns.

“Let them win in the Legislature,” he said. “We beat them there last spring. We’ll beat them again.”

He said after the Legislative committee recommended the bill pass, the opponents lobbied for two months and were able to push the recommendation back, likely past the next election cycle.

He has criticized town managers and select boards for “running scared to the school board” to ask for the vote too soon.

“You didn’t wait for the last chapter to be written,” he said.

He said the school board voted June 19 to form the cost-sharing committee, but on June 23 the House of Representatives voted to send it back to committee “with a death knell.”

Board Chairman Don Bennett noted the Legislature’s committee had told the local officials they should go home and try to solve their own problem, rather than go to the state.

“That was only part of the Legislature,” countered Cole.

He was also critical of the cost-sharing committee, saying they made their recommendation too quickly after only one meeting.

Selectman Peter Southam said he thought it was important for local residents to be able to vote on the issue.

He suggested the board go through state data to provide context to voters on how other districts in the state divvy up local school tax shares, noting about 10 to 20 percent use a formula combining valuation and student population. He said the board should also be clear with figures on what Bethel pays now, and what it would pay if the formula is approved.

Cole said they should also emphasize that passing the formula is no guarantee Newry will not ultimately withdraw.

Landes said when the managers and select board chairman of the four district towns met in May to discuss formula ideas, Newry officials pledged to support staying in SAD 44 at least for the eight years of the formula changeover.

“They can’t make that deal,” Cole argued.

“They said they would do their best,” Landes said.

Bennett also took issue with Cole’s “running scared” characterization, and said Bethel residents need to ask themselves if a compromise on the formula, which would cost them money, is worth it to try to keep the school district together.

“What’s it worth to keep this very close-knit community together as a community, and not have perhaps years of animosity over dollars and cents?” he asked. “There has to be something in the middle.”

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