At Monday’s night’s regular monthly meeting, the board was thrown a curveball during the public comments portion when Joel Fitzpatrick, a resident of Patten, read a letter stating the towns of Patten, Sherman, Mt. Chase, Stacyville, Hersey and Moro all planned to begin the withdrawal process from the district.
“A group has been formed to explore (withdrawal) and to create our own local AOS (Alternative Organizational Structure),” Fitzpatrick stated. “Although a lengthy process, our towns have decided to go forward as we believe this is the only way we can provide a learning environment that is both beneficial to our children and our communities.”
RSU 50 Interim Superintendent Mike Hammer said both he and many on the school board were surprised by that revelation, as up to that point there had been no mention of all those towns seceding from the district.
“I think the board and I were taken off guard last night with the full withdrawal plan,” Hammer said. “I don’t think all the towns are in agreement though, specifically Stacyville, but we’ll see. I think they need concrete financial numbers and the state will have to support them.”
The six towns listed comprise the former CSD 9, which was the stand-alone Katahdin school district.
RSU 50 was formed in July 2011 and encompasses the former SAD 25 and CSD 9 school districts. The district lies in northern Penobscot and southern Aroostook counties and is approximately 460 square miles, making it one of the largest geographic school regions in Maine. The RSU serves 12 communities: Crystal, Dyer Brook, Hersey, Island Falls, Merrill, Moro Plantation, Mt. Chase, Oakfield, Patten, Sherman, Smyrna, and Stacyville.
“I think there are petitions out in Sherman and Patten that are not moving forward,” Hammer said. “Mt. Chase has gone the farthest by forming a committee and having met with our committee a few times.”
Towns must follow a lengthy 22-step process to withdraw, per state statutes that include first submitting a petition to local selectmen with the names of at least 10 percent of the registered voters, based on the number of voters who participated in the last gubernatorial election.
According to the Maine.gov website, “In order for a town to withdraw from a Regional School Unit, the final referendum vote to approve the withdrawal agreement must have been completed by Nov. 30 of the prior year in which the town hopes to withdraw effective July 1.”
For example, if a final referendum vote to approve the withdrawal agreement is held by Nov. 30, 2016, the effective date of withdrawal can be July 1, 2017. However, if a final referendum vote to approve the withdrawal agreement is held after Nov. 30, 2016, the effective date of withdrawal cannot be until July 1, 2018.
Thus far, no public hearings or votes have been taken in any of those communities listed. Petitions have been submitted in some of those towns, with some of those documents presented to their respective boards of selectmen almost a year ago.
Residents in attendance Monday evening said they have reached out to their local state legislators in the hopes that some form of emergency legislation could be submitted that would allow the towns in the former CSD 9 to leave simultaneously and form their own district.
The move was prompted by a Jan. 21 vote by the RSU 50 board that attempted to close the Katahdin Middle-High School building and send grades 9-12 to Southern Aroostook Community School in Dyer Brook, while the grades 7-8 would have been moved to Katahdin Elementary School in Stacyville.
That vote failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed to move forward after nearly 400 residents filled the KES gymnasium and pleaded with the board not to close the high school.
The board then decided it would explore consolidating the two Katahdin schools into one building. No discussion on this proposal took place at Monday night’s regular board meeting.
Hammer said the RSU 50 board would continue moving forward as a full district as next year’s budget will soon need to be finalized. The district received some initial good news from the state in terms of funding for next year. RSU 50 could see an increase of $349,631 in what the state calls a “Small School Adjustment,” as well as an extra $102,093 in Special Education revenues.
Hammer said the state figures are only in the preliminary stages for next year and could change dramatically by next month’s board meeting.
“It is going to be very difficult moving forward,” Hammer said. “Yes we will formulate our budget on what we need for next year, as we will hope the information from the (state) is correct.”
Hammer said he did have some concerns with how the district staff would handle the news of a possible split.
“How do I direct the board to continue with policy development, contract negotiations, building improvements, etc. knowing that it could all be undone by a ‘divorce’ and creation of an AOS or some other structure?” he said. “How do we keep teachers engaged in working together on content and curriculum to keep students working on standards? I can’t in good faith sit still but forming a plan to move forward is going to take some creative problem solving.”