NEWRY — Mark Eastman, educational consultant for the Newry Withdrawal Committee, told residents Tuesday night that he has “never seen a withdrawal committee treated with such disrespect.”

The former School Administrative District 17 superintendent from Paris told those at the public hearing on a proposal for Newry to leave SAD 44 that he has helped around 20 communities with the withdrawal process.

“I’ve never seen a committee bullied the way this one was,” Eastman said. “At this point, we can’t even have an intelligent conversation about the issues with SAD 44.”

He listed actions by the SAD 44 board, including:

• Waiting around 100 days between meetings;

• Going directly to the state commissioner of education to “get him to stop the process”;

• Having the board’s legal counsel write letters to the editor telling Newry residents that they have no control over their tax dollars; and

• Bringing Withdrawal Committee members to Portland for mediation hearings and “failing to mediate.”

“Their latest tactic is to go around the Withdrawal Committee to town officials to get the process stopped,” Eastman said. “I’ve never seen these types of tactics used. It’s basically a refusal to bargain.”

Selectman Jim Largess told Eastman he disagreed that the school board came to the selectmen to circumvent the Withdrawal Committee.

“I went to (the school board),” Largess said. “I was frustrated with this whole process, like everybody else. I was particularly frustrated that there wasn’t a chance for us to vote on the issue. I wanted an opportunity to go to the polls to vote, and I didn’t see it coming.”

Largess said he had lunch with Jim Sysko, a member of the Withdrawal Committee, and expressed his frustrations.

“I met with Jim (Sysko) as Jim Largess, the resident — not Jim Largess, the selectman — and asked what he thought about getting the board to start a refunding formula committee together,” Largess told the audience. “Jim told me he was OK with it, with the caveat that the withdrawal process was paused, not stopped.

“I stood up in front of the school board — as a resident and not a selectman — and told them that we wanted to vote on this issue, and that we wanted to see a funding formula committee created,” Largess said. “After some discussion, the school board came back to us and said that if we put the question to stop the withdrawal process on the ballot, they would start the committee, regardless of the vote’s outcome.”

Largess said he understands the Withdrawal Committee’s frustration that the process would be stopped — not paused — but thought it was most important to get the process moving.

At the start of the selectmen’s hearing on the issue, the Withdrawal Committee handed out a statement that read, “Newry has nothing to gain by ending the process of withdrawal from SAD 44, but a lot to lose.”

The statement pointed out that every school district in Maine uses a funding formula that combines real estate value and the number of students, but a legislative act passed in 2004 resulted in SAD 44 and SAD 6 being exempted from that formula. Both districts were permitted to use only real estate value to determine their funding formula.

The Withdrawal Committee pointed out that as a result of the exemption, Newry pays about 37 percent of SAD 44’s budget, while having only 4 percent of the students in the district.

“Newry pays approximately $112,000 for each of its students, whereas the three other towns in the district pay between $7,000 and $12,000 per student,” the statement read. “In the current year, nearly 70 percent of Newry’s town budget goes to SAD 44, leaving us to fund other needed projects through borrowing.”

Residents voted in September 2014 to authorize the Withdrawal Committee to investigate options for leaving the district, which also includes Bethel, Greenwood and Woodstock. The committee and the SAD 44 board have not reached an agreement to present to Newry voters.

Newry has few students, but its high property valuation means it pays about $3 million a year toward the $10 million annual school budget, according to published reports.

A change in the funding formula could factor in student population and shift more of the cost to the three other towns. The change would involve setting up a committee with representation from each town and crafting a proposed formula, according to state law. A majority of district voters would have to approve it.

SAD 44 Superintendent David Murphy said a cost-sharing formula committee has been formed, and will meet for the first time at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 19.

Board of Selectmen Chairman Gary Wight told residents that the school board agreed to form a funding formula committee if the board placed an article on the June 14 warrant asking if the town wished to stop the withdrawal process.

Fire Chief Bruce Pierce asked if the funding formula committee would continue if residents decided to continue with the withdrawal process.

Wight confirmed that it would continue regardless of the outcome of the vote.

After more than an hour of discussion, Wight said that he wanted to bring the issue to a close until the June 14 vote.

“I don’t think we’re getting any closer to figuring anything out,” Wight said. “We all have our opinions and strong feelings on the issue.”

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