RSU 5 delays budget vote, wants to put brakes on reorganization; state won't allow it
FREEPORT — Some members of the Regional School Unit 5 Board of Trustees want to press the state for a timeout in the consolidation of Freeport, Pownal and Durham schools.
But Superintendent Shannon Welsh and other board members disagree. They say the legal implications would be devastating to the three towns.
Nonetheless, the board on Wednesday postponed a district-wide budget referendum from June 9 to June 25.
Welsh said the Maine Municipal Bond Bank, which is providing the borrowing mechanism for the new Durham Elementary School, has concerns about the project based on what bond bank officials have read about the RSU's consolidation problems.
"There are very serious legal ramifications," Welsh said. "The bond bank needs legal assurance that this RSU will be formed by July 1, and is looking for that reassurance."
She said the bonds are to be issued for the project in July, and while the state and Durham are responsible for repaying the bonds, the bond bank would be concerned if those payments couldn't be made under the RSU umbrella.
"The liability rests with the RSU, and it needs to be a functioning body as required by law," she said. "There is potential for a problem if the RSU doesn't take steps to organize."
RSU member Nelson Larkins of Freeport also warned that the board does not comply with the school reorganization law, residents could file lawsuits for not having a school system in place for their children, and towns could sue each other for halting the process.
Other concerns about slowing down the consolidation process, how to unwind the union and ways to reduce Pownal's tax impact were asked of state Education Commissioner Susan Gendron at Wednesday's RSU board meeting.
Nearly 150 residents listened as Gendron said she was willing to help the RSU figure out a way to move forward, but she said she has no authority to allow the district to slow the process for a year, or to legally disband.
In an effort to offset a 36 percent tax increase facing Pownal as a result of reorganization, Gendron last week offered the town's schools a $190,000 grant. But she withdrew the offer this week, she said, after legislators opposed to the offer threatened to restrict her financial authority.
If the RSU does not comply with the law, by either failing to implement a budget by July 1 or pausing the consolidation process, Gendron said a due process public hearing would be held to determine why the state should not withhold subsidies from each teach town, which is the penalty for non-complying towns. Pownal received $570,000 in state subsidies this year, Durham received $3.3 million and Freeport received $1.1 million. Gendron said the RSU also received about $200,000 as a result of consolidation.
"I want to help you," she said. "But it is not responsible for me to help you break the law. I absolutely believe (consolidation) is the right thing to do. I will not, can not, do something to help you not comply with the law."
In order to help the RSU, Gendron agreed to meet with members of the three town's municipal and school boards to "look at a budget resolution under the requirements of the law." The meeting will be at 7 p.m. in the Freeport High School cafeteria on Monday, May 18.
But after Gendron and most of the public left Wednesday's meeting, RSU board member Betsy Peters of Freeport moved to defer the consolidation process, pause for a year and have the RSU take its chances with a due process hearing.
Larkins called the move a "vote to break the law" and said he would not participate in that action. Chairwoman Laurie Poissonnier said the legal ramifications are too risky, and asked Peters to withdraw her motion. She did.
But members decided to meet with their attorney to to learn more about their position after Monday's meeting. Welsh said Thursday the board may set a special meeting after Monday to discuss its next steps.
In addition, the schedule for budget approval has been extended. After the Monday meeting with the commissioner and town officials, the board will meet Wednesday, May 27, to review the spending plan. It will try to adopt the budget on Wednesday, June 3, instead of conducting a previously planned tri-town meeting. There will be another meeting of the RSU board with no budget action or deliberation on June 10, then an annual budget meeting for the three towns on Tuesday, June 16, at Freeport High School at 6 p.m.
The budget validation referendum is now scheduled for June 25, instead of June 9, and the RSU, depending on the outcome of the vote, would be operational only five days later, on July 1.
The RSU also voted 8-1 to approve participation in the Maine Learning Technology Initiative Laptop Program for high school students, spending $109,000 to fund the program. The money for the first year will come from federal stimulus money, funds set aside by the Freeport School Committee for technology and the high school supply budget. The next three years will have to be funded through grants, tuition funds or a reallocation of budget items.
Eric Dube of Pownal and Brenda Kielty of Freeport were absent. Jen Kaplan of Pownal abstained from the vote, saying she received the information as the topic was opened for discussion, and needed more time to make a decision. The deadline for the program is May 22.