BETHEL — LD 1082 is a school funding bill that, if passed by the Maine Legislature, could potentially impact School Administrative District 44 more than Newry withdrawing from the district would, according to district officials.

The bill is written to take effect Jan. 1 and would specifically affect SAD 44 and Regional School Unit 6.

A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday, April 15, in Augusta.

State Rep. Fran Head, R-Bethel, said Monday she will propose an amendment to remove SAD 44 from the bill.

The bill is in response to a law that was passed 10 years ago. In 2005, the Legislature approved LD 1924, which exempted SAD 44 and RSU 6 from a statewide school funding change that made a town’s student population a factor in determining its share of the local school budget.

The exemption meant Newry would continue to pay a large portion of the SAD 44 budget, because the local SAD 44 share is calculated entirely on town valuation. The vote by the Legislature happened without any formal local input from the town or its residents. It prompted resentment among some, and helped fuel the town’s current withdrawal effort.

This month, the Legislature is considering whether to remove that exemption as of Jan. 1, 2016, and calculate the local share based 50 percent on valuation and 50 percent on student population. The bill originated out of concerns in Frye Island, an RSU 6 town with a similar valuation profile as Newry.

As in 2005, Newry has not officially had the opportunity to weigh in on the issue at a local forum, according to town officials who said they only found out about the bill last week.

So did SAD 44 Superintendent Dave Murphy, who provided an estimate what the impact on SAD 44 towns would be if the bill passes. He said it tentatively appears the financial blow could be worse than if Newry, which pays approximately $2.9 million a year to SAD 44, withdrew.

Murphy’s estimated figures, which were calculated by Drummond Woodsum attorneys, based on the current year’s budget and likely different from what they would be in the future, show Bethel would have to come up with an additional $1.63 million, Woodstock an additional $697,612, and Greenwood $59,168.

Newry’s share would drop by $2.38 million. The large impact is a result in part of technical calculations within the formula, according to the Drummond Woodsum information.

According to SAD 44, under the current formula, the payments by town are: Bethel, $2.92 million; Greenwood, $1.06 million; Newry, $3.06 million; Woodstock, $1.19 million.

“We think it’s really important that people understand what this means,” Murphy said. He said it would be a concern whether the towns could raise that kind of money. For two of the towns, he said, the hike would represent more than a 50 percent increase in their school budget share.

Murphy said his understanding is the law would take effect for fiscal year 2017, the 2016-2017 school year.

He met with town managers from SAD 44 towns Monday, and said SAD 44 representatives would testify Wednesday in Augusta before the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs. He also said the Maine Department of Education was expected to testify against the bill. A work session on the bill by the committee is expected to take place in about a week, according to Legislature officials.

On Monday evening, the SAD 44 board, including Newry’s two directors, Bonnie Largess and Whitney Gray, unanimously approved a resolution opposing the bill, according to Murphy.

Head responds

Head, who is listed as a sponsor of the bill, was asked about her sponsorship and why there was no official notification to SAD 44 and its towns leading up to the bill’s introduction and hearing.

“I signed on to this bill only so that I would be kept updated on when the public hearing would be scheduled …” she said. “The easy thing to do would be to sit on the sidelines on this bill and to take no position — but that isn’t what I came here to do. At the beginning of the public hearing, I will formally ask the committee to entirely eliminate ‘MSAD 44? from LD 1082 because of the financial impact which will be tremendously detrimental to our area.”

Last week, Head said her amendment would request that funding in the two districts be evaluated separately.

“This is an important issue for our towns, and the hearing will provide an opportunity for residents to voice their opinion. Oftentimes, representatives will co-sponsor a bill in order to stay apprised of new developments. That is what I did, and look forward to keeping you all updated. Two months ago, I said this should remain a local issue, which is exactly what I still believe.”

Regarding notification to the towns, Head said, “When I was notified of the public hearing, I began reaching out to constituents who had approached me on this issue, as well as some town officials and SAD 44 staff. If any of my constituents want to voice support or opposition and can’t attend the hearing, you can email [email protected] and it will be distributed on the day of the meeting.”

In January, when the bill was being initiated, the Newry Withdrawal Committee discussed it briefly, deciding that dealing with it formally was not part of its charge. Mark Eastman, the committee’s education consultant, estimated then that the bill, if approved, would mean Newry would pay $1.7 million less to SAD 44.

The committee’s legal consultant, Dan Stockford, noted at the time that the issue might be something the town could consider taking a position on. That has not happened, and the committee has continued to try informally tracking the bill process.

Newry Selectman Wendy Hanscom said the board found out about the bill last week. “What bothers me the most is this includes almost no provision for local input from MSAD 44 or its member towns,” she said. “The state will change the law. Whoever can manage to get to Augusta and testify, can. … LD 1082 does not allow much discussion for what’s best at the local level.”

Greenwood Town Manager Kim Sparks and Bethel Town Manager Christine Landes also said they had not known about the bill until last week.

Sysko, Wight views

As for the bill itself, Jim Sysko, chairman of the Newry Withdrawal Committee and a driving force behind the withdrawal effort, said Thursday that he supports the bill, emphasizing he speaks only for himself.

“What this bill does is that it removes the exception that was placed on only Frye Island and Newry when LD 1 was enacted and changed the way schools were funded in Maine,” he said. “The exception was voted without the opportunity for Newry citizens to voice their opinions. It was akin to ‘taxation without representation’ for these two communities, which is abhorrent to most citizen-patriots.

“The recommended change defined in (LD 1082) is consistent with a cost-setting process that the law provides for all other Maine communities. Newry has been forced into a current situation whereby it pays over $111,000 per student to the local district each year while neglecting public works and local projects that are needed to maintain the town roads, infrastructure and support services. To make matters even more extreme, Newry and Frye Island have virtually no voting power on their districts’ school boards. LD 1082 will not change this, but it will give Newry and Frye Island more equitable tax treatment under the law.”

After learning of the SAD 44 impact numbers Friday, Sysko added, “I’d like to remind everyone that back in 2005, Newry people were not given any notice at all about a bill that cost them tens of millions since then. Now those against LD 1082, which will correct the earlier injustice, are complaining that a week is not enough notice. Pure hypocrisy.”

Former Newry selectman Steve Wight — who in 2005 worked with state legislators on the exemption — said Friday of LD 1082, “As a citizen of the SAD 44 region, I think it is a bad idea. The reason for passage of the bill in the first place was that Newry and Frye Island were found to be outliers from the norm in terms of valuation vs. number of pupils. Most towns with locally high valuations are large enough to have their own school systems and support them from their own tax base. Only when several towns comprise a school district and there is a great disparity among them in terms of both valuation and number of pupils does the problem occur.”

Wight was asked about Sysko’s criticism of the town not seeking local public input in 2005 on LD 1924, and about the bill being discussed by selectmen then. “I did discuss with the Newry selectmen the fact that SAD 44 was working on the exemption back in 2005,” he said. “No one on the board was concerned about it at the time. I don’t know whether there was a reporter at the meeting, but in any event no report of the discussion was published.”

In January, the SAD 44 board voted to take no action on creating its own committee to consider local alternatives to the current cost-sharing formula for SAD 44 towns.

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