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AUGUSTA — A bill that would make it easier for towns to withdraw from consolidated school districts is heading to the Maine House of Representatives.
The bill is especially relevant now because as of Jan. 1, towns that formed consolidated school districts three years ago are able to begin the withdrawal process.
Expensive and time-consuming, it begins with a petition to hold a referendum to start the process. If that passes, a town must produce a study detailing how it will provide for the educational needs of all its students. Once completed, the plan must be approved by the commissioner of the Department of Education and then, after a public hearing, the town would have to approve withdrawal by a two-thirds majority vote.
But if LD 1742 becomes law, a town could withdraw with only a simple majority in that final vote.
The change would apply to the recently formed regional school units and the older school administrative districts.
The prospect is good news for North Yarmouth resident Mark Verrill, who is collecting signatures to start the process of extracting the town from School Administrative District 51, which it has shared with Cumberland for more than 40 years.
“It could be a game changer,” Verrill said on Tuesday when he learned about the bill. “There’s a huge difference in that final vote if you only need 51 percent versus 66.”
Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, said he introduced the amendment that reduced the necessary majority because he wants it to be just as easy for a town to get out of a consolidated district as it was to join one.
“I believe (the amendment) was justified because when the state passed the consolidation law we had system of penalties that coerced a lot of communities into joining consolidated units,” Johnson said.
He said he proposed the amendment after hearing from several towns, particularly in Aroostook and Washington counties, that were unhappy with their new regional school units.
But in order to gain votes on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, Johnson added a “sunset clause” on the amendment. Towns will only have two years from the date the bill goes into effect, assuming it passes the House and Senate, where they can withdraw with a 51 percent majority vote. After that point, the final vote will again require a two-thirds margin to pass.
According to Phil McCarthy, the committee’s legislative analyst, the sunset clause allows towns that really want out an opportunity to do so.
“It is a window of opportunity for those folks who are interested in doing this right now,” he said.
Although the bill survived the committee, it did not have unanimous support. Rep. Steven Lovejoy, D-Portland, one of the two dissenters, said he is concerned that reversing consolidation will make education more expensive in small, rural towns.
“A lot of these places have very small numbers and if they go back to having their own district and superintendent, it will create more costs in education rather than less,” Lovejoy said. “And I’d much rather see the funds going into students and education than into administrators.”
He also noted that if towns begin the withdrawal process, but don’t complete it before the two-year sunset, “they lose that opportunity.”
Shannon Welsh, superintendent of RSU 5 (Freeport, Durham and Pownal) said it makes sense to give towns an opportunity to re-evaluate whether they want to stay in their districts. But she said consolidation in her district has been successful, both financially and educationally, and making it easier to withdraw “takes the focus off our educational mission.”
If LD 1742 passes, the bill could aid 255 Durham residents who recently signed their a petition that would start the process of withdrawing that town from RSU 5. Durham Board of Selectmen Chairman Jeff Wakeman said the referendum would be held in June.
The bill was also of interest to Harpswell resident Robert McIntyre, who has led two unsuccessful campaigns to get Harpswell out of SAD 75 and has previously said he may try a third time.
“If this becomes a law it will definitively require careful thinking,” McIntyre said. “It certainly is provocative.”