Nov. 7 referendum: Large crowd debates SAD 44 cost-sharing proposal

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BETHEL — At a public hearing Thursday that drew about 150 SAD 44 voters, community leaders and residents lined up on both sides of the question of whether the local school cost-sharing formula should be changed to shift some of the tax burden from Newry to the other three towns.

Voters will answer that question formally Tuesday, Nov. 7, in a district-wide referendum in Newry, Bethel, Greenwood and Woodstock.

Some have seen a change as a way to keep Newry from withdrawing from SAD 44, which would have a serious financial impact on the other towns, according to town and school officials.

If approved Nov. 7, the new cost-sharing method would factor in student population from each member town, instead of the current method of basing town shares entirely on property valuation. The new plan would reduce Newry’s share because the town has only about two dozen students.

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The current amounts paid by each town, according to the towns, are as follows: Bethel $2.83 million; Greenwood $1.05 million; Newry $3.05 million; and Woodstock $1.32 million. 

The formula plan would phase in the change over eight years. It calls for a 95 percent valuation/5 percent student population split the first two years; a 90/10 split the next three years; an 88/12 split the next two years; and 85/15 beginning the eighth year.

The town managers have calculated the estimated impact over that time on their towns’ respective shares in the $11 million school budget. But they used only current budget figures to estimate, since future amounts are unknown.

With those figures, the cumulative change from the current shares for each town as each new split takes effect would be:

* For the first two years at 95/5: Bethel, an increase of $92,343; Greenwood, increase of $2,672; Woodstock, increase of $39,018; Newry decrease of $119,467.

* For the next three years at 90/10: Bethel, $184,686 increase; Greenwood, $5,345 increase; Woodstock, $78,035 increase; Newry, $238,934 decrease.

* For the next two years at 88/12: Bethel, $221,623 increase; Greenwood, $6,414 increase; Woodstock, $93,642 increase; Newry, $286,721 decrease.

* For the final change to 85/15: Bethel, $277,029 increase; Greenwood, $8,017 increase; Woodstock, $117,053 increase; Newry $358,401 decrease.

The plan was crafted by the town managers and select board chairmen from the four towns.

Regarding a potential withdrawal by Newry, the town’s effort to bring about a town vote on the question is currently in limbo. Negotiations with SAD 44 on a withdrawal agreement for Newry voters to consider are stalled.

A legislative bill, LD 1336, that would allow for “binding mediation” for such situations, stalled in the state Legislature. At the end of June it was sent back to the Education Committee to be carried over until January. The committee had originally recommended unanimously that the Legislature pass the bill.

Jane Ryerson, standing, of Bethel, speaks at Thursday’s public hearing on a proposed change to the SAD 44 local cost-sharing formula. (Alison Aloisio/Bethel Citizen)

Boards of selectmen for the sending towns in SAD 44 issued statements on the funding formula proposal:

Bethel: “The change in the funding formula shifts the costs from one formula to another, that is currently used in about 30 percent (estimated) of Maine school districts. This process will allow a cost sharing proposal that will be consistent amongst all the towns in the district. If there is a change in assessment or student population, it will affect each individual town. It is a fair system; that says the four towns listened to Newry’s concerns. We were told by Augusta [legislators] to go back and rectify this issue ourselves, and this is a way to accomplish that.”

Greenwood: “We were informed by Augusta to go back and work this out amongst ourselves. Greenwood invited the towns to start discussing a plan that would be palatable for all towns involved and would help preserve our district and community. Our students and school staff deserve stability and this plan makes that possible.”

Newry: “Newry supports the refunding formula because through numerous public hearings, a majority of Newry voters expressed that the 2005 educational funding exemption was unfair; this current compromise abolishes that exemption, which says that the district communities are listening to Newry’s concerns.”

Woodstock: “The Woodstock Board of Selectmen and town manager are supporting the cost study referendum that offers a compromise to Newry in their efforts to reduce their per pupil cost of education in the MSAD #44 school district in an effort to keep the district together. We also support the School Board for voting to restructure itself, giving three votes each to Greenwood, Woodstock and Newry, and six to Bethel, thereby giving Newry more say on the board than in the past.”

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