Newry withdrawal impasse likely to continue

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NEWRY — Disagreement between members of the Maine House and Senate has effectively killed a bill that could have helped Newry withdraw from School Administrative District 44, according to the office of state Rep. Fran Head, R-Bethel.

Negotiations for a withdrawal agreement that Newry residents could vote on are stalled, and without the passage of  LD 1336, it appears the impasse will continue.

The Legislature’s Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs voted unanimously in February to recommend passage of the bill. However, when the bill went to the House, an amendment was added by Rep. John Madigan, D-Rumford, that would have excluded SAD 44 in Bethel and SAD 6 in Buxton from the binding mediation option. It was approved 104-38.

When the bill moved to the Senate last week, the amendment was removed, the bill was approved and returned to the House.

On Monday, House members voted 93-51 to stand by the SAD 44-SAD 6 exemption, according to state Rep. Fran Head’s office. That effectively killed the bill.

Head voted for the amendment and to stand by the exemption, as did Madigan, who represents Woodstock, one of the four SAD 44 towns.

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“Now that the Legislature has rejected every proposal which included binding mediation, the withdrawal discussion moves back to where it belongs, locally,” Head said Wednesday.

Newry Administrator Amy Bernard said at Tuesday’s selectmen meeting that even if the bill had passed it would have applied only to future withdrawals, although Newry could have stopped and restarted its withdrawal process to be eligible for the bill’s provisions if the exclusion amendment was not included.

Board of Selectmen Chairman Gary Wight, who is a member of the Withdrawal Committee, said the panel would have to meet to decide where to go next. At the last committee meeting, the possibility of litigation against SAD 44, or an effort to get state legislation to change the local cost-sharing formula, was briefly discussed in the event LD 1336 failed, he said.

Newry residents began the withdrawal process more than three years ago because they pay about $3 million of the $11 million annual budget and have about two dozen of the district’s 750 students.

The district’s cost-sharing formula is based solely on each town’s property valuation.

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 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 for the four district towns.

It would be the third vote on a formula change.

Selectmen on Tuesday discussed an initiative statewide by “minimum receivership districts” to raise the amount of state school funding those districts receive. SAD 44 is one of those districts because of high local property values.

Bernard said she attended a meeting in Augusta about the effort, and towns are being asked if they wish to participate in and contribute financially to lobbying for it.

Selectman Jim Largess said his initial reaction was “yes,” but he wondered about Newry continuing to be a member of SAD 44.

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