SAD 44 agrees to mediation on Newry withdrawal issue

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The SAD 44 committee negotiating with Newry’s Withdrawal Committee has agreed to mediation to try to come to a withdrawal agreement for Newry residents to consider.

The Newry panel had proposed the move.

“We are agreeing to mediation because it’s the next best tool to resolve the withdrawal challenges,” SAD 44 committee Chairman Marcel Polak said Tuesday.

The two panels have been working since January to settle on how Newry’s two dozen students would be educated, and on what financial arrangement Newry would have with SAD 44 should the town vote to leave the district.

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But the Newry committee has recently claimed that its SAD 44 counterpart has been stalling and not negotiating in good faith, by offering counterproposals that would keep Newry essentially paying the same amount (about $3 million) toward a SAD 44 education as it does now, and by not moving significantly from that stance. The Newry group has about $19,000 left of the $50,000 approved by voters last year to spend on consultants and the process.

Polak said, however, that his committee has been negotiating in “best faith, with the interests of all the students and taxpayers of SAD 44 the priority.”

“We are not trying to stall, we are not trying to run them out of money,” he said. “We feel we are negotiating in the best interest of all students and taxpayers in SAD 44. We really don’t want to rush this process. There’s too much at stake. They [the Newry panel] want to move this quickly, and it’s too complicated to do that.”

Newry has proposed gradually reducing its share of the school budget over the 10 years after withdrawal, to spread out the impact on the other three district towns. But Polak said that impact would still be there during and after 10 years, and would likely result in significant budget cuts.

“The core issue is fairness,” he said, noting that the many second home owners in Newry are better able to pay taxes than many local residents. ” Local residents have much lower median incomes than second home owners,” he said. “To shift the taxes to local residents is regressive.”

Polak noted that Dana Bullen, president and general manager of Sunday River Resort, has taken a public position against Newry withdrawing.

A good public education, said Polak, is key for students, particularly those coming from lower income families, to be able to move up “the economic ladder.”

Polak cited his own experience as the reason for his strong support for public education, and shared it with the SAD 44 School Board at its meeting this week.

“I came to the United States with my parents, as immigrants, when I was four and a half,” he said. “My mother had, where she was from in Germany, her public education ended at grade eight. Where my father was born, there was no public education. So they basically had very limited education when they came to this country. They struggled economically; they struggled with jobs, and it was because of that limited education that they had in their youth.

“On the other hand, I had the benefit of an extraordinary public education in New York City, paid for by taxpayers, most of whom could afford to pay a lot more taxes than my parents could afford …

“I then attended Queens College, the City University of New York. At the time, New York City provided public college education, free of charge, to the top 10 percent of all graduating high school seniors in the public school system. If that hadn’t been the case, if the taxpayers of New York City hadn’t paid for that public education, I probably wouldn’t have been here. I certainly wouldn’t have gone to college, because my parents didn’t have the money to send me, and even as cheap as it was back then, relatively, it wasn’t something that we could afford. So I’m very grateful for that.”

OTHER DISTRICTS; FORMULA CHANGE

Asked how he thinks other Maine school districts manage to fund their schools without the benefit of a tax base like Newry’s, Polak said, “I’m not quite sure how they do it,” adding that the situation with Newry and SAD 44 is a unique one.

As for the possibility of establishing a district committee to negotiate a change in the local funding formula that would reduce Newry’s share, Polak said it might be discussed in mediation.

He said that in hindsight such an option would have better been pursued before Newry voted to enter the withdrawal process, rather than having both processes going on at the same time and Newry still holding the final say through a withdrawal vote. Earlier this summer the district asked the state to halt the withdrawal process in order to look at the formula, but was told that could not be done.

NEWRY COMMITTEE COMMENTS

At the meeting of the Newry Withdrawal Committee Tuesday evening, member William Andrews presented figures he had researched online regarding the average household incomes in the four SAD 44 towns.

Andrews’ numbers (from incomebyzipcode.com) show Bethel having an average annual household income of $67,364; Greenwood $72,286; Newry $57,871; and Woodstock $53,641. He said he believed the figures to be based on income tax information.

He acknowledged that a large portion of Newry taxes are paid for by non-residents but, he said, “Newry citizens have to pay their taxes out of their income,” and the figures show their income to be lower than two of the other three towns. He said the information would be useful to have when SAD 44 officials argue that a Newry withdrawal would be a significant financial blow to the other towns.

Bonnie Largess, Newry’s SAD 44 director who is also on the NWC, noted that Greenwood and Woodstock have second homes on the lakes in those towns.

On the subject of possibly changing the funding formula, Largess said she would ask the School Board at its Sept. 14 meeting to consider initiating the formation of a committee for that purpose.

Andrews and NWC legal consultant Dan Stockford said there was irony in the district’s argument that Newry would, in Andrews’ words, “be holding a gun to our [SAD 44’s] head” if a formula change process took place at the same time as the withdrawal process. Said Stockford, “They wanted Newry to drop the withdrawal so then they could hold a gun to Newry’s head.”

NWC Chairman Jim Sysko emphasized that if Largess brings a request to the board to look at the formula, the move would be her own and not officially authorized by the committee, whose charge does not include involvement in such a process. Sysko also said the topic could not be addressed in mediation with SAD 44 for the same reason.

He said he is neutral on a formula change, saying his focus is on the quality of education.

The committee also discussed possible options for mediators. The committee’s consultants planned to contact SAD 44 representatives on the subject.

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