FREEPORT — Pownal residents upset by a 36 percent tax increase in the Regional School Unit 5 budget have forced a vote on repeal of school consolidation.
Pownal now joins the ranks of other small Maine towns dissatisfied with consolidation. Citizens in Etna, Dixmont and Steuben, communities with populations similar to Pownal, have also made moves to withdraw from their regional school units.
Pownal Town Clerk Kelly Wentworth said a citizen petition was brought to the town offices on April 13. She said 85 to 90 signatures were needed by initiative backers, and 172 of the town’s nearly 1,100 residents signed the initiative to revisit the consolidation vote taken last November.
Residents will vote in a secret ballot at the annual Town Meeting June 9 to reconsider their decision to consolidate with Freeport and Durham. The vote could send a strong message about consolidation, but will carry no legal weight.
Tim Giddinge, chairman of the Pownal Board of Selectmen, said it’s important for Pownal residents to express their opinions and be heard.
“We want Augusta and the governor to know that the public was deceived by the numbers provided to us,” he said. “The figures we are working with now are very different from what was presented before last November’s referendum.”
Giddinge said if the referendum passes, the town will go to Education Commissioner Susan Gendron and ask for a withdrawal. When she says no, he said, the town will appeal to the attorney general.
Carol Cyr is a member of the Pownal School Board and the petition organizer. She said she started circulating the petition as a way to inform people of the need to pull out of a financially detrimental situation. She said she went door to door with the petition and asked if residents want to reconsider the vote taken on Nov. 4, 2008, to ratify the creation of Regional School Unit 5 with Freeport and Durham.
“Even if this vote is symbolic, to me it is a way to get other small towns to voice their concerns,” Cyr said. “I really feel as though something needs to be done.”
“When I hear ‘you cannot pull out of this,’ I say, ‘show me where it says I can’t,'” she said. “This type of possibility is what America is built on.”
David Connerty-Marin, communications director at the Department of Education, said neither Gendron, nor Gov. John Baldacci can undo a consolidated school unit or approve a town’s withdrawal from the unit.
“Some people are hoping they can undo this somehow, but there are no provisions to do that,” Connerty-Marin said. “For better or for worse, the towns are together. They need a budget for July 1 and they need to provide an education for the children.”
Connerty-Marin said the answer they need to find is whether the RSU’s cost-sharing formula can be reconsidered. He said the RSU 5 formula is “complex and fairly different from other RSUs.”
The proposed RSU budget is $23.5 million. The 36 percent increase in school taxes facing Pownal residents is a result of a 13.5 percent increase in state valuation creating a significant loss in subsidy, and a reduction in carry-forward funds to offset taxes. The RSU cost-sharing formula is another factor in Pownal’s tax increase.
Connerty-Marin said not only is there no provision to withdraw from the union, but the commissioner has no authority to delay start-up of the RSU.
“Given that, the parties may agree to open the cost-sharing formula back up and the commissioner will help them to readjust it,” Connerty-Marin said. “It is not easy work, but it can be done.”
The RSU 5 board and nearly 200 people who attended an April 29 public budget meeting in Freeport heard similar responses from Jim Rier, DOE director of finance and operations. Rier answered questions for Gendron, who was unable to attend the meeting due to a Kennebunk school closure caused by the swine flu outbreak.
Pownal residents said they could not afford to live in Pownal with the proposed tax increases. Not including municipal taxes, they would pay an increase of $649 more per $100,000 of assessed value, while Durham will face a 7 percent increase over this year and Freeport will see a $5 reduction per $100,000 of assessed value.
Rier said Gendron understands the challenges facing the three communities and especially Pownal, but emphasized the importance of forming the RSU by July 1.
“We want to make sure we encourage you to focus every bit of energy you have on carrying out what you’ve already bargained to do,” he said, “… and not take away from the interest of the student by getting distracted by another direction because the law does not allow that.”
“It is not helpful to dwell on too many what-ifs,” Rier said, “because the bottom line is there is no way to withdraw.”
RSU board member Jen Kaplan of Pownal said some residents argue that what is has been present to residents is not the plan voted on last November.
“In Pownal, we knew we weren’t going to see cost savings, in fact we knew that we were going to pay, and we were willing to do that because we have two very good partners,” she said. “What is going to happen (is) we are going to have to make some cuts and that is going to leave us with three skeletal systems where you now have three very high-functioning systems.”
Kaplan said in order to reduce the impact to Pownal taxpayers and reach a budget Pownal residents can support, more than $1 million would need to be cut from the RSU 5 budget.
“I am not advocating this,” Kaplan said. “I am showing the reductions needed to make it palatable for Pownal residents.”
The RSU board said finding $1 million in cuts while providing quality education would be impossible.
The board is expected to meet in an emergency meeting Wednesday, May 6, at 8 p.m. Superintendent Shannon Welsh said in an e-mail Tuesday that the purpose of the special meeting is to discuss the RSU’s options, to consider authorizing a letter to be sent to Gendron and Baldacci, and to discuss meetings with the two.
The regularly scheduled budget meeting will be Wednesday, May 13, at 6:30 p.m. at Freeport High School. Final budget adoption is scheduled for May 27; budget validation referendums in each town are scheduled for June 9, the same day Pownal will vote on the repeal question.