NEWRY — Selectmen voted unanimously recently to have board member Jim Largess meet with managers of other SAD 44 towns to discuss changing the local school funding formula.

At the school board meeting Monday, Jan. 25, Largess’ wife, Bonnie, who is on the school board, is expected to ask the board to consider starting a formal process to change the formula. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Woodstock Elementary School.

Newry has few students but its high property valuation means it pays about $3 million a year toward the $10 million annual budget. A change in the funding formula could factor in student population and shift more of the cost to Bethel, Greenwood and Woodstock.

The change would involve setting up a committee with representation from each district town and crafting a proposed formula, according to state law. A majority of district voters would have to approve it.

The school board discussed changing the funding formula about a year ago, but declined to pursue it because some members said that with an ongoing Newry withdrawal effort, the town would have the ultimate say on the overall outcome of finances in SAD 44 through a withdrawal vote.

The idea to look at the formula option again was prompted by the failure, so far, of an effort by the Newry Withdrawal Committee to negotiate a withdrawal agreement.

SAD 44 negotiators have stood firm on their financial position, which would keep Newry essentially paying the district the same as it is now. Negotiators said it is the fairest solution for all.

The town has spent nearly $50,000 on consultants and other fees.

“We’re not getting anywhere,” Jim Largess said.

He said he supports good-quality education, and if he thought withdrawing from SAD 44 would help education, he would be for it. But, he said, “I don’t see how withdrawal is going to help education, so I’m not for withdrawal. But this is not about for or against withdrawal. This is about continuing the conversation, which in my mind, is stuck.”

Largess and Jim Sysko, chairman of the Newry Withdrawal Committee and a proponent of withdrawal, agreed a new approach might be needed to get things moving.

“Let’s try to find a window where we can change things, where we can talk,” Sysko said.

Resident Doug Webster, however, thought selectmen should instead “take a stance and maybe write a letter, almost condemning the school board for their non-negotiations. They’re the ones who are supposed to be negotiating in good faith.”

He said SAD 44 owes it to Newry voters to give them a withdrawal agreement to vote on.

But the Board of Selectmen continued to discuss other options. Selectman Wendy Hanscom mentioned the possibility of the town voting to stop the withdrawal process.

Sysko said the Withdrawal Committee might be able to suspend the process for a time if a formal effort to change the funding formula went forward.

Town Administrator Amy Bernard wondered what would happen if the town voted in March not to authorize any more money for the Withdrawal Committee.

“That would probably say something,” Sysko said. Another option would be to ask for no more money for now, and just “keep the process out there.” 

He also noted that for school withdrawal to be approved, a two-thirds vote is needed, and that can be difficult to get.

Largess added that when the town voted to start the withdrawal process in 2014, some voters thought they were simply deciding to explore educational alternatives, not to hold a later vote on actual withdrawal.

He wondered if there would be a way for the town to vote to look at other alternatives.

“The only way we can do this is to get out of SAD 44 to have the alternative,” Sysko said.

He told selectmen the Withdrawal Committee asked for a counterproposal from SAD 44 negotiators by Jan. 22, but had not received one.

Before the vote, Hanscom made a formal disclosure that she works for SAD 44, a step town officials sometimes take in such situations to deal with any potential appearance of a conflict of interest.

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