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Pownal faces 'perfect storm' after education chief withdraws offer to offset school taxes

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Pownal faces 'perfect storm' after education chief withdraws offer to offset school taxes

FREEPORT — Only days after she offered the Pownal School Department a $190,000 grant to help offset a potential 36 percent tax increase, state Education Commissioner Susan Gendron on Monday night withdrew the offer.

Shannon Welsh, superintendent of Regional School Unit 5, said concerns and questions from legislators about the May 7 grant proposal may have forced Gendron's decision.

"I absolutely had faith that the offer was made from the Department of Education to Pownal, because Pownal needed the help," Welsh said. "I was caught unaware, and am surprised and disappointed that the grant offer has been withdrawn."

According to a transcript of a Monday meeting between Gendron and the Legislature's Education Committee, there were several reasons the grant did not receive approval. Sen. Carol Weston, R-Montville, said it was "bad policy to pick one town which has been complaining and give them $190,000 to, bluntly, keep (them) quiet."

David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Department of Education, said the Education Committee did not think awarding School Administrative District 62, the Pownal School Department, a grant was a justified use of school reorganization funds.

"There were obvious concerns raised about the grant looking like Pownal was bought off,"  he said. "It was not the commissioner's intent to have it look like that, so she withdrew the offer."

Marin said the $190,000 to Pownal would have come from a reorganization fund used to pay for facilitators, transportation routing software, RSU legal fees, data entry and educational planning funds.

While SAD 62 had not decided whether to accept the money to help offset taxes to residents, School Board Chairman Paul Schumann said the district's problems with RSU 5 are less about the money and more about time.

"We are truly in a perfect storm of circumstances," he said. With reduced carry-forward funds, a significant increase in required local contribution, property valuation rising, and reduced student enrollments, he said Pownal would have taken a financial hit anyway. But in addition, he said, the country's economy, the declining state budget, and federal budget shortfalls add to the town's financial problems.

"Then, you add an RSU board that appears to be unsympathetic to the plight of their partner communities, and their ability to pay taxes," he said.  

Laurie Poissonnier, chairwoman of the RSU board and a Durham resident, said she doesn't know what options are left for the the RSU board with the withdrawal of Gendron's offer.

"We have to figure something out, have to protect our staff and our students, but we are running out of time," she said.

According to the RSU budget calendar, budget adoption is scheduled for Wednesday, May 27, and the annual budget meeting for the 2010 RSU school budget approval is June 3. All three towns are expected to vote in a budget validation referendum on June 9.

"We may have to move meetings and add another in," Poissonnier said. "We need help getting this process back on track, and time is running out."

Welsh said Gendron was invited to attend an RSU meeting Wednesday, May 13, at 6:30 p.m., at the Freeport High School cafeteria to talk about options for the RSU. She said she heard that the commissioner rearranged her schedule and planned to attend, and would answer public questions.

"I am not sure what we are going to do at this point," Welsh said. "The RSU discussed an alternate budget process, so we would have to deliberate on what that would mean."

She also said an umbrella school board format would be discussed, where local school committees are retained to act as advisory boards to the RSU for input and guidance.

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net.