What: SAD 44 withdrawal vote

When: 10-8 Tuesday, Jan. 7

Where: Andover Town Hall

ANDOVER — Whether to withdraw from SAD 44 and fund a local elementary school sparked deep sentiment on both sides of the issue at a public hearing at the Town Hall on Saturday.

The decision will be made at the polls Tuesday.

If the town remains in the district, SAD 44 will close Andover Elementary School. If it leaves and fully funds the local school, taxes could go up 42 percent based on estimated expenses, one selectman said.

Several people Saturday lobbied for local control and yes votes; some preferred a no vote and many more asked questions of selectmen, local school board Director Tim Akers and members of the Andover Withdrawal Committee.

Most questions keyed on anticipated costs to run a municipal school district and increased property taxes.

Selectman Susan Merrow, who heads the Withdrawal Committee, said the SAD 44 school board voted to close Andover Elementary School in February 2011 to save money. Town voters raised $214,000 over and above their school assessment to keep it open, then formed a committee to consider options.

Voters raised $68,000 the following year to continue to keep the school open after the district voted again to close it. A group of residents voted to begin the withdrawal process via petition and formed a committee. To date, Merrow said, the town has invested $556,000 to go through the withdrawal process while keeping the school open.

Andover has about 100 students from kindergarten through grade 12; about 35 in kindergarten to grade five attend Andover Elementary School.

Merrow said rural towns die when they don’t have local schools. She added that home values drop 25 percent, and there’s no new economic development. Towns that control their own schools, she said, control their own costs and can grow their economies.

Initial questions from the large crowd concerned the Withdrawal Committee’s draft budget estimate of $1.23 million and how that amount was tallied.

Former Superintendent Jack Turcotte, who created the estimate for the committee, said it’s about $4,000 to $5,000 short for transportation because he based it on two bus drivers instead of three.

Committee member Paula Lee said Andover pays SAD 44 an assessment based on the town’s valuation, not on student enrollment, which means the town’s assessment could increase significantly, despite having so few elementary school pupils.

Resident Jarrod Dumas asked whether the $1.23 million spending plan is a proposed budget.

Turcotte said it’s not; it’s a work-in-progress draft of what a school budget could look like if Andover chose to operate its own school.

One resident wanted hard numbers rather than speculation before voting, but was told there weren’t any because the town has no history of running a school at today’s costs.

“Until we pull out and a school board is created and the budgets are created and we come back to town meeting and vote on it, we don’t really know,” Akers said.

Former longtime Andover school board Director Sid Pew said it would cost considerably more than the draft budget to operate a school because tuition costs keep escalating. He urged people to vote it down.

Local lawyer Steve Hudspeth lobbied for a yes vote because he and his family want the town to prosper.

“This is a great town, because I know this town can put its mind to doing whatever it wants, as long as it has the freedom to do it,” he said.

Hudspeth said the benefit of local control is “helping your kids at their most critical age range.”

Resident Anna Camire urged a no vote and closing the school to save the town money.

Selectman Keith Farrington said that if Turcotte’s $1.23 million draft budget reflects the true cost, taxes would jump by 42 percent. He said he would rather have Andover remain in the district.

Resident Susan Ross said some townspeople can’t afford a large tax hike and could lose their homes so the town could run its own school. She lobbied against withdrawal.

“It upsets me to think we have a chance to try something new, and if it’s voted down, we don’t,” said resident Pete Coolidge, arguing for a yes vote.

Resident Daniel Wells said he was “scared to death about taxes going up,” but he was more frightened about losing local control.

“If we withdraw, we can do it” with a lot of hard work, he said. “We can do it better. I believe it’s the right thing.”

Withdrawal Committee member David Percival said that if the vote to withdraw is approved and the school budget comes in too high, townspeople can vote it down and close Andover Elementary themselves in a year.

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