SAD 44 school board rejects third vote on funding formula

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BETHEL — School Administrative District 44 directors Monday voted 5-8 against re-establishing the process that would lead to a third districtwide vote to change the cost-sharing formula for the four member towns.

The Newry Withdrawal Committee had requested a third vote, after those in 2016 and 2017 failed to change the formula from 100 percent property value to one based on property value and student population in Bethel, Greenwood, Newry and Woodstock.

The 2017 proposal, narrowly defeated last November, was to phase in the change over eight years. The formula would have been based 95 percent on valuation and 5 percent student population the first two years; a 90/10 split in years three, four and five; an 88/12 split in years six and seven; and an 85/15 split in year eight.

In December, the Withdrawal Committee requested a re-vote on that same formula.

Area businessmen, including Dennis Doyon and developer Ron Savage, asked directors to put the issue to a third vote to try to avoid the financial impact of Newry potentially leaving the district.

Newry pays about $2.5 million of the $10 million annual budget and has about two dozen students of the district’s 750.

The Withdrawal Committee voted in December to recommend that residents vote to discontinue the withdrawal process if district residents approve changing the formula to favor Newry.

Monday’s agenda item had a new twist — if the formula was approved by voters it would be implemented only if Newry first voted to end its withdrawal effort.

Newry Town Administrator Amy Bernard spoke in favor of the provision, saying it would assure that the town would have to end its effort.

Savage said businesses such as his could handle about a 10 percent tax increase from a formula change, but if Newry withdrew and taxes increased 40 percent, he said, that would “devastate us.”

Doyon said he believed that several factors surrounding a public hearing before the Nov. 7, 2017, vote may have contributed to the result: The hearing was delayed by weather, putting it too close to the vote to get the information out to the public, there was misunderstanding that the formula change was an eight-year “deal,” not a phase-in. He also noted the November referendum failed by 19 votes.

Several other businesspeople also spoke in favor of a third vote.

Woodstock school director Marcel Polak was skeptical that making the implementation of the formula change contingent on Newry ending its withdrawal effort would have lasting power.

He said while the town might vote to end the withdrawal process, state law would still allow Newry residents to present a petition in another few years for a town vote to start a new withdrawal effort.

Board Chairman Larry Merlino of Greenwood had a different concern.

The Maine Legislature’s Education Committee is scheduled to take up LD 1336, a bill that would provide for “binding mediation” to resolve stalled withdrawal negotiations. The bill had been tabled by the Legislature last session, but was scheduled for discussion by the committee Wednesday.

If that bill was ultimately approved, Merlino said, it would make it very likely that Newry would withdraw at some point in the future.

But Bethel resident Scott Cole, who has opposed changing the funding formula, told directors they should vote down the request, noting they could always return to the issue later.

All three Newry directors voted Monday to establish a committee to come up with a different funding formula.

In other business, the board:

• Approved a 3 percent pay increase each year for the next three years for support staff, including bus drivers, custodians and food service workers, starting July 1;

• Approved of Superintendent David Murphy asking the state commissioner of education for permission to extend the school day by an hour for up to 25 days to make up five of the eight storms days used so far; and

• Approved increasing pay rates for some district staff to $10 an hour to comply with state minimum wage law.

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