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Scenarios collide in North Yarmouth discussion about leaving SAD 51

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Scenarios collide in North Yarmouth discussion about leaving SAD 51

NORTH YARMOUTH — In the first of two public discussions on whether the town should leave its school district, residents were told Oct. 10 that doing so would either save money or add to their tax burden.

The second meeting on withdrawal from School Administrative District 51 was scheduled for Wednesday at Wescustogo Hall.

The question goes to a voter referendum Tuesday, Nov. 6.

If is approved, negotiations would begin between North Yarmouth and SAD 51, which the town formed with Cumberland in 1966. A negotiated withdrawal plan would then go back to North Yarmouth and require approval by two-thirds of voters.

Mark Verrill, a former selectman who led the withdrawal drive, said at last week's meeting that his goal is to reduce property taxes, improve the quality of education, and eventually build a new school in the town.

The SAD 51 Board of Directors is expected to vote this fall on a task force recommendation to close the town's only school, North Yarmouth Memorial, and move the fourth- and fifth-grade students to an expanded Greely Middle School in Cumberland, as a means of saving money.

Verrill said accomplishing his goals will increase property values in North Yarmouth, and noted that approval of the referendum does not mean the town will automatically leaves SAD 51, but will start a "fact-finding mission."

The Board of Selectmen allocated $100,000 to a withdrawal committee, if the referendum question passes. The expenditure will be included in the ballot language, and Administrative Assistant Marnie Diffin has said the funds will be in the town's fiscal 2014 budget.

The committee will "look into all the details, and put together a complete and comprehensive plan," Verrill said.

"After 46 years, we deserve to look at this and find out the truth," he said, noting that the withdrawal committee's work will determine the cost and location of a new K-5 or K-8 school in North Yarmouth, staffing and transportation of students, choices of where to send those students to high school, and the town's tax burden.

Verrill said SAD 51 raised North Yarmouth's taxes last year by 8 percent, or $520,000. He said taxes have increased 25 percent in the past four years, and 44 percent in the past decade.

"I believe we can do better on our own, and I'd like to explore a full and complete withdrawal," Verrill said.

He estimated the cost of a new school between $20 million and $25 million, and said he believes state funding could be available, since the school has been on a replacement list.

Verrill also noted that SAD 51 has $120 million in assets, of which North Yarmouth owns 29.4 percent, or $35.3 million.

"I think what we've failed to do as a community ... is actually step back and ask if the educational opportunities we're providing our students through the district actually meet the needs of the parents," resident Linc Merrill said.

Maybe those students are getting the best education, and at a fair price for the town, he added, but "we've never actually looked at that," Merrill said. "What we've done is spend a lot of time yelling back and forth across the town line."

David Perkins, a former member of the School Board and Board of Selectmen who opposes withdrawal, argued that "we feel very strongly that a 'yes' vote without a plan and without some clear thinking and some clear solutions will obviously lead to problems with costs, will obviously lead to problems with the quality of our education ... and will distract us from figuring out some real solutions."

"If we spent the next year talking about leaving, it's the equivalent of saying it's time for a divorce," Perkins continued. "You don't get to creative discussions at that point; you get to a lot of anger."

He noted that the state has said it would not fund a new North Yarmouth school, which would relegate that burden to the town.

Perkins also asked where North Yarmouth's more than 200 students would go if the town leaves the district. If they go to different schools, he said, "what does that mean to your community, when your kids spread to the winds?"

"When you don't have representation, and you're not part of a school district, and your kids are basically migrant students, that puts them in a very different place," he said. "You have no power ... to set the costs ... (and) to control the quality."

Selectman Mark Girard, who voted against putting the question to voters next month, said North Yarmouth's education costs and taxes would be higher if the town had an independent school department.

He said he gleaned public information from SAD 51's fiscal 2013 budget, construction costs for K-8 facilities, estimated debt service for projects started in 2012, per-pupil tuition for grade 9-12 students, and per-pupil operating costs for K-8 schools, and he referred people to the state Education Department at maine.gov/doe/data.

Girard said North Yarmouth's share of fiscal 2013 SAD 51 expenses is $5.5 million, and that its debt service obligation is about $883,000. The town would be required to continue to contribute to obligations at the time of withdrawal, and debt service would gradually dwindle to nothing by 2030, when all bonds are paid.

Building a new school for 500 students – K-8 currently has 488 – could cost $22.4 million, based on recent construction costs for similarly sized schools in Woolwich, Chelsea, Jefferson and Durham, Girard said.

Financing would be nearly $2 million a year for 20 years, he noted, and with school financing added to existing debt service, 30 percent of the town's school expenses would go toward debt, up from the current 10 percent.

"That (money) doesn't educate your kids," Girard said. "That doesn't make any kid any smarter."

Tuition for North Yarmouth's 209 high school students, based on per-pupil costs in surrounding communities, would be nearly $12,000 each, or $2.5 million, Girard said.

He said operating costs would be $4.2 million for North Yarmouth's 488 K-8 students, based on figures for similarly sized Maine schools. He also determined that transportation costs would be about $435,000 for the town's nearly 700 students, based on SAD 51 figures – and would not include the cost of buying buses.

With SAD 51 receiving $10.7 million in state subsidy for fiscal 2013, and assuming those funds would be divided on a per-pupil basis, Girard figured North Yarmouth's share would be $3.7 million.

Adding all the elements together, North Yarmouth's school cost for this year would have been $6.3 million, about $822,000 more than what it is paying, causing a tax rate increase from the current $13.95 per $1,000 of property valuation to $15.65. That would result in a tax increase of approximately $468 for a home valued at $275,000.

Taking into account all the low ends of the comparables used, Girard said the town could save about $10,000 annually. But at the highest cost, North Yarmouth would pay an additional $2.3 million a year, he said.

"Not a very good bet," Girard concluded. "If you're betting $100,000 (for the withdrawal committee's expenses) and you want to get $10,000 in return, and take the chance of having to pony up $2.2 million, I'll take that bet."

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.