New SAD 44 cost-sharing formula proposed

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BETHEL — A School Administrative District 44 committee has approved a third cost-sharing formula to perhaps entice Newry to stay in the district.

The school board will meet Monday to set a date for a districtwide vote on the formula.

The 12-person committee voted 11-1 to send the proposed formula to voters, with Michele Varuolo Cole of Bethel opposed.

The current formula is based solely on property valuation of each town, with Newry’s the highest. It pays about $3 million of the district’s $11 million budget.

The proposal calls for factoring student population in each town. Because Newry has only about two dozen of the district’s 750 students, some of some its school taxes would shift to Bethel Greenwood and Woodstock. The formula would be phased in over nine years.

Beginning in 2020, for the first two years the formula would be based 95 percent on valuation and 5 percent on student enrollment; the next three years, 90 percent valuation and 10 percent enrollment; the next three years, 88 percent valuation and 12 percent enrollment; and for 2018 and thereafter, 85 percent valuation and 15 percent enrollment.

The implementation would be contingent on Newry residents voting to end their withdrawal process.

Newry selectmen and the Newry Withdrawal Committee have indicated they would recommend to residents that they end the process if the cost-sharing formula is approved.

The withdrawal process began more than three years ago because residents thought they were paying a disproportionate amount of the district budget.

A proposal in November 2016 to change the formula to 90 percent property valuation and 10 percent student population the first year, and an 85/15 split the following two  years was defeated by district voters.

A second proposal defeated in November 2017 was for a formula of 95 percent valuation and 5 percent enrollment the first two years; a 90/10 split the next three years; an 88/12 split the next two years; and an 85/15 split in the eighth year. That also was defeated.

On March 27, the school board voted to accept a citizen petition calling for a committee to study the cost-sharing formula, which now will go to a vote.

The citizen petition that resulted in the newest proposal was initiated in the context of the Maine Legislature’s consideration of LD 1336, a bill that would have provided for binding mediation for stalled school withdrawal negotiations such as Newry’s. The bill ultimately died in the Legislature. Had it passed as written, Newry might have had the opportunity to move the negotiations with SAD 44 forward and put the question of withdrawal to a town vote. The bill’s defeat prevents that, at least for now.

At the recent committee meeting on the cost-sharing formula, member and SAD 44 Director Marcel Polak said SAD 44 had already made one move to benefit Newry by reapportioning the vote on the school board to give Newry more voting power.

Polak also expressed concern that if the cost-sharing formula is approved, it could be difficult to maintain educational offerings in SAD 44. 

Committee member Cole argued that SAD 44 communities are interdependent, and the tax revenue generated in Newry by Sunday River Resort and associated second homes is only possible because of workers who come from other towns to help operate the business. “We all have to pay for public education,” and the current formula is the fairest method to do that, she said.

Several business people who supported the petition attended the meeting and said they would rather absorb a relatively smaller tax increase over the phase-in of a new formula than risk a potential 50 percent school tax increase resulting from a Newry withdrawal.

“Are we willing to go to the casino and roll the dice on this district?” asked Ron Savage of Bethel. He said he pays about $60,000 in taxes a year in SAD 44 towns. He also said he believes Newry pays too much, and that not all condominium owners who pay taxes are as rich as some area residents may believe they are.

Allen Connors, general manager of the Bethel Inn, cited anger in Newry after the actions in the Legislature.

“I think that our representatives’ attempt to kind of really handcuff them has stirred up even more,” he said, and that the district should “show some goodwill” and compromise on the issue.

Others noted that in two previous district votes on a new funding formula, Newry voters strongly supported it, an indication that its approval could convince them to stop the current withdrawal process.

Committee member Bob Lowell of Newry said he believed that would be the case.

Committee member Peter Southam of Bethel said the new formula would be fair, noting it could eventually result in Newry paying a larger share again if the town’s student population increases.

When the panel eventually determined that the condition for Newry to stop withdrawal could legally be added to the formula referendum question, Polak said that while he was “not particularly happy” about the proposal, he would support putting it out to the voters.

“I really want to see healing in this community,” he said. “I want to see (Superintendent David) Murphy, I want to see the rest of the board focus on education. I want to be able to serve our kids, rather than fighting within the community.”

Norm Milliard of Greenwood said he thought the added condition would be a good compromise to make a change more palatable for voters.

The committee also voted 10-2 to recommend the School Board hold the referendum June 12, state primary election day.

Some committee members said it would be important to educate voters about the proposed formula before the vote.

Martha McLean of Greenwood said that she left the question blank in the last vote because she did not understand the issue.

A public hearing is expected to be scheduled.

Estimates of the specific financial impacts of a new formula on the SAD 44 towns are not yet available.

Other members of the cost-sharing committee included Fred Henderson of Greenwood, Ron Deegan and David Bobbe of Woodstock, Dave Bartlett and Wendy Hanscom of Newry and Frank DelDuca of Bethel.

Members of the SAD 44 committee proposing a new cost-sharing formula for the four members towns studying are, facing from left, Wendy Hanscom of Newry, Martha McLean and Norm Milliard of Greenwood, Marcel Polak and David Bobbe of Woodstock, Peter Southam and Michele Varuolo Cole of Bethel and facilitator Mike Cormier; back-to from left, Frank DelDuca of Bethel, Bob Lowell of Newry, Ron Deegan of Woodstock and Dave Bartlett of Newry. Not show are Fred Henderson of Greenwood and Superintendent Dave Murphy. (Alison Aloisio/The Bethel Citizen)

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