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NORTH YARMOUTH — A former selectman is collecting petition signatures for the town’s withdrawal from School Administrative District 51.
Mark Verrill began collecting signatures at the polls at Wescustogo Hall on Election Day. He announced the drive at a Board of Selectmen meeting last week, where he also advocated maintaining a school in North Yarmouth.
North Yarmouth and Cumberland formed SAD 51 in 1966. Greely high and middle schools are in Cumberland, with the Mabel I. Wilson School, which has kindergarten through third grade. North Yarmouth Memorial School has fourth and fifth grades.
As a church deacon, and a selectman from 2008-2011, Verrill said he has seen how many people struggle to pay their property taxes.
“It led to some sleepless nights, I must admit,” he said. “I’m tender-hearted at the core, and that kind of stuff bothers me. What I hope to achieve from this is a significant reduction in property taxes for my fellow citizens, to improve the quality of our children’s education at a much lower cost, and third, to curb town growth to preserve our rural character.”
If the town withdraws, Verrill said he would still like it to partner with Cumberland. He suggested that a K-5 school could be built in North Yarmouth to replace Memorial School, which was built in 1976. The town could then contract with Cumberland for middle and high school services.
“If Cumberland doesn’t want to have anything to do with us after the ‘divorce,’ we could look at building a K-8 school here in North Yarmouth,” and then possibly send students to North Yarmouth Academy in Yarmouth, he said.
Verrill said that according to 2009 statistics, Cumberland’s median annual household income was about $84,000, while North Yarmouth’s was just more than $61,000.
“It’s a marriage I don’t feel that we can afford,” he said. “It’s like making $50,000 a year and being married to a wife who spends $200,000. You can’t afford that marriage.”
“My biggest frustration with what’s gone on in SAD 51,” Verrill said, is that “I think they made a huge mistake trying to keep up with Yarmouth and Falmouth. … They built an excellent educational system on the backs of just the property owners … without the backing of significant commercial tax base. Those other communities have significant commercial tax base. … That’s where the large revenue comes from.”
He added that “North Yarmouth doesn’t have any potential for commercial growth, and Cumberland has limited potential for commercial growth. And the economy has stalled, so what potential they have has stalled.”
Sixty-six percent of students who live in the district are from Cumberland, while 34 percent live in North Yarmouth. Cumberland bears 71.3 percent of the school district tax assessment, and North Yarmouth bears 28.7 percent of the assessment.
The petition for withdrawal is required to have at least 208 valid North Yarmouth signatures – 10 percent of the number of residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election. According to Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin, there is no time limit or deadline for the collection of signatures.
After the required signatures are gathered, the question of whether to begin the withdrawal process would go to referendum in North Yarmouth and require a majority vote, Connerty-Marin said. If the referendum is approved, negotiations would begin between North Yarmouth and SAD 51.
“That’s an especially hard part,” he said. “You’ve got assets, and you’ve got liabilities, and you have students who need to have a place to go to school, so there are lot of factors.”
A negotiated withdrawal plan would then go back to North Yarmouth and require approval by two-thirds of voters, Connerty-Marin said.
Such petitions are “rarely successful,” he said, “because the bar is pretty high.”
Since SAD 51 predates Maine’s 2008 school district reorganization law, it is not constrained by a new law that prevents petitions for withdrawal from the more recently formed regional school units until the beginning of next year, Connerty-Marin said.
He also said that if North Yarmouth secedes, SAD 51 will continue to exist.
Jeanne Chadbourne, a former selectman and SAD 51 board member who signed the petition on Tuesday, said it’s important to discuss the issue.
“Get it out on the table and (talking) about it, let people know, let them express their ideas and their opinions, and go with it from there,” she said.
Verrill said part of his motivation is concern over the possible closure of North Yarmouth Memorial School and the financial impact that would have on the town.
A task force is charged with making recommendations to the SAD 51 Board of Directors about the future of the school. The task force chairman, Mark Girard of North Yarmouth, said last week that the group has met once and is far from a consensus on any recommendation.
Verrill said he expects the task force to ultimately recommend the school be closed, and for “the School Board to vote and follow that lead. Then I expect it will go out to the voters of Cumberland and North Yarmouth in June, and I expect that that school will be closed.”
If the vote to close the school succeeds across the district, but a majority of North Yarmouth voters are opposed, the town will be “stuck with the bill (for the building),” he said, “and that’s not fair.”
Girard said that “what we have been and what we will be spending the early part of the discussion on is gathering information, and framing the discussion with that information.”
That information includes the physical attributes of the school, and whether the building can be renovated or must be replaced. “If it does need to be replaced, is it replaced at that location, (or) at a different location?,” Girard said.
The school is safe and usable, “but there are some long-term capital issues that are not getting better, that will simply get worse with the age of the building,” he said, including the ventilation and electrical systems.
The task force will also look at enrollment and projections for the district, to determine what kind of capacity will be needed. It plans to have recommendations for the School Board by the end of this year or early next year.
“We want to be thorough, we want to be deliberate,” SAD 51 Superintendent Robert Hasson said last week. “It is the only (school district) asset that’s in North Yarmouth. … So we want to be sensitive to that.”
Board of Selectmen Chairman Paul Napolitano said in a Nov. 4 press release that selectmen would be attending task force meetings “and reporting back to the town the direction and progress of the discussions. The public is welcome to attend all meetings and their input is welcome.”
SAD 51 Chairman Jim Bailinson said Monday that “a very public process (is) underway to gather and weigh all the facts, and make a recommendation to the School Board. That task force has a majority of people from North Yarmouth.”
The Cumberland resident added that “I’m aware of no complaints from North Yarmouth about the 40-plus year partnership between the two communities. We’re very proud of the education we’re offering the students of both the communities. We’re one of the top districts in the state, so it’s a shame if these discussions about secession distract us from the very serious work we’re doing in both communities to strengthen and advance the education we’re providing our kids.”
Cumberland Town Manager Bill Shane, who dealt with a community withdrawal when Chebeague Island seceded from Cumberland in 2007, said the process can be stressful and emotional.
“I know how difficult it was for the elected officials here to have gone through that with Chebeague,” Shane said last week. “… It all started on Chebeague Island with the same issue. (SAD 51 was) looking at budgetary savings, and one of the savings was to close the school on Chebeague Island.
“The difficulty is that North Yarmouth residents are going to have to weigh … the value of that education from SAD 51,” he said. “My two sons basically went from kindergarten through high school there, and they got a private education at a public school price.”
Shane called Verrill “a decent guy,” and noted that they have worked together on several committees.
“I respect Mark’s opinion, it is his opinion, and if he can get folks to follow him, then more power to him,” the Cumberland manager said. “But I think it’s a long process.”
Mark Verrill, right, gathered signatures Tuesday at the North Yarmouth polls at Wescustogo Hall for a petition to withdraw his town from School Administrative District 51.