Newry Withdrawal Committee: SAD 44 officials stalling

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NEWRY — After receiving another counterproposal from School Administrative District 44 that is very similar to the last one, some Newry Withdrawal Committee members said SAD 44 officials are stalling and not bargaining in good faith.

SAD 44 Withdrawal Committee Chairman Marcel Polak, however, denied that claim and said his committee is simply trying to do what is best for the district, which also includes Bethel, Woodstock and Greenwood.

It also appears uncertain at this time whether the two sides will agree to bring in a mediator, or whether SAD 44 will consider initiating a change in the local school funding formula to reduce Newry’s share.

The Newry committee voted last week to request that SAD 44 officials join them in asking for a mediator to try to break the deadlock.

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In a related matter, Newry Withdrawal Committee member Bonnie Largess, who also serves on the SAD 44 board, said she would again ask the board if it wishes to initiate a process to change the funding formula to be more financially favorable to Newry.

The board tabled her first request in December, but in June, SAD 44 requested that the commissioner of education suspend the withdrawal process so Newry and the district could pursue a funding formula change. The commissioner, however, rejected the request, saying he had no authority to override the legal withdrawal process initiated by a town vote last fall. He said the two processes could happen simultaneously.

Last week, the Newry Withdrawal Committee’s educational consultant, former SAD 17 Superintendent Mark Eastman, prepared a timeline showing the exchanges of counterproposals since Newry first put forth a proposal in early January. After a Newry counterproposal on April 14, 101 days passed until SAD 44 sent its most recent one, he said.

Eastman included the following “related comments” with the timeline:

* SAD 44 promised to “use all legal means possible to oppose Newry withdrawal;”

* The initial SAD 44 proposal would have cost Newry more than it is currently paying;

* SAD 44 has never responded to Newry proposals;

* SAD 44 ignored Newry’s proposals and tried to get the commissioner to force Newry to suspend our withdrawal effort;

* When the committees finally met, SAD 44 simply resubmitted its original proposal with minor adjustments;

* Now SAD 44 does not want to meet until they discuss the commissioner’s letter;

* The facts appear to support actions by SAD 44 that are not supportive of a good-faith negotiations process.

“It seems like a lot of the strategies are to slow the process down,” Eastman said after going over the list.

Eastman also said SAD 44 crossed out the new language Newry offered in its last counterproposal, including a provision that a withdrawal agreement would not prevent Newry from building/maintaining its own school at its own expense.

Committee member William Andrews noted SAD 44 continues to include in its counterproposals that an ultimate vote by Newry on whether to withdraw should take place on the date of a statewide election. He said that stipulation is a further indication that the district wants to slow the process down as much as possible.

Committee Chairman Jim Sysko, commenting on the $50,000 approved by Newry voters to pay for the withdrawal process, said about $19,000 is left. “They’re not only draining us timewise, they’re draining us moneywise,” he said.

On the subject of a mediator Sysko said, “I don’t think they’re going to go out of their way to get a mediator. They would have to negotiate.”

“The dilemma is we don’t have any tools,’ Andrews said. “We can suggest mediation; they can reject mediation.”

Some committee members said if SAD 44 does agree to mediation, the two parties should share in the cost equally.

Regarding the financial impact of a Newry withdrawal, Newry resident Tama Drown, citing that the district has long maintained a Newry withdrawal would devastate SAD 44 financially, said at the committee meeting that the current situation is devastating to Newry’s municipal budget.

“What do they think it is doing to the town of Newry, when we have a $4 million town budget, and $3 million of our budget goes to SAD 44, leaving $1 million for us to do what we can do with it for the year for the town?” she asked. “However, their towns have their budgets, and they can still do road work, they can still do other work to their towns, but the town of Newry cannot. The town of Newry is devastated because it’s sending $3 million to SAD 44.”

Polak recently respond to the Newry committee’s claims.

“We are not delaying,” he said, adding that the stipulation for a vote on a statewide election date is intended to get the most people out to vote, a common practice in municipal voting issues.

Polak said his committee “is doing the best we can to represent the district’s taxpayers and students. That is our job.” He said he did not know what the Newry committee’s comment that SAD 44 had never responded to Newry proposals meant. The committee did not elaborate on that point at its meeting.

Regarding mediation, Polak said it is nonbinding on the parties, as binding arbitration is not an option provided in the withdrawal law. But, he said, “We haven’t totally discounted it.”

Regarding a Newry proposal to, after withdrawal, slowly decrease its financial share over 10 years while other towns increase theirs, Polak said that would still leave the district ultimately making up a difference of about $2.5 million in today’s dollars in the annual budget. SAD 44 is proposing to keep Newry’s payment share over the 10-year period of the withdrawal agreement nearly the same as it is now.

Polak said that added expenses for the town beyond that amount would come from Newry setting up its own school department. But, he said, “That’s their choice. If they want districtwide services, we can’t charge wholesale prices.”

He said he still has not seen an answer from the Newry committee on a question he has posed in the past on how the town’s withdrawal would improve education in SAD 44.

Polak also said that a provision by Newry to establish a “Targeted Grants Fund” for residents to vote additional funding for SAD 44 at each annual Town Meeting “won’t pass the straight-face test — expecting voters to spend more than they have to.” He said another stipulation would set up a separate committee to recommend uses for the funds, which, he said, would be like having a second school board making budget decisions that would bypass the rest of the district.

Asked about striking the agreement language that said Newry would not be prevented from building and maintaining a school, Polak replied, “We think the language originally came from Andover(‘s withdrawal agreement) or another town with a school. We originally felt that the language was not relevant so we left it in. On reflection, however, we felt that the provision was needed only if the NWC intended to build a school, and if that was the case, the NWC should explain this upfront to its own residents so they could fully understand the potential costs related to withdrawal.”

As for negotiating a change in the local funding formula, Polak said the committee will review that option, but members generally feel the same way they did when they proposed stopping the withdrawal process to pursue a funding change instead. He said it would be difficult to recommend a formula change process, to be voted upon by all district towns, when that decision “could still be trumped by a (withdrawal) vote in Newry.”

Polak’s committee meets Aug. 17, he said, while the Newry committee plans a meeting for Aug. 20. The school board meets next on Aug. 24.

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