RSU 1 residents air concern about West Bath withdrawal

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WEST BATH — With the town expected to vote in three months on leaving Regional School Unit 1, residents of the district’s five communities raised questions about the split at a public hearing Wednesday.

A major concern expressed by audience members at the West Bath School meeting was that, under a withdrawal agreement between RSU 1 and West Bath’s withdrawal committee, students from other towns in RSU 1 would no longer be able to attend the West Bath school.

Peter Oceretko, a West Bath selectman and member of the town’s withdrawal committee, has said that West Bath would welcome other RSU 1 students, but that RSU 1 policy calls for its own students to remain within the school district.

Both sides will continue to discuss that matter, Oceretko said; the withdrawal agreement can be amended through Nov. 21, 30 days after Wednesday’s public hearing. The state Department of Education must have a completed withdrawal agreement by that time, according to Oceretko.

A second hearing is scheduled for Dec. 18.

Cameron Jacobs of Phippsburg, whose children attend West Bath’s kindergarten-to-fifth-grade school, noted that RSU 1 has given her family the choice to attend different district schools.

“At this point, the choice families have in some ways been dropped,” she said concerning the agreement, adding that she wants “to advocate for my children and other children that are at West Bath right now and want to stay, and want to be part of this community.”

Members of both the RSU 1 and withdrawal panels expressed a desire to find a way for RSU 1 students to continue to attend West Bath. Dennis Crews, a withdrawal committee member, noted that the RSU 1 board and a future West Bath school board could work through that matter.

“There’s nothing that prevents two school boards from making any kind of tuition agreement,” regarding RSU 1 sending students to West Bath, he said, noting that even if the matter is not settled by Nov. 21, the two boards still could opt to re-open the issue.

Former RSU 1 board member Charles Durfee, of Woolwich, expressed reservations about such a tuition arrangement.

“I would think it would be very difficult to willingly want to pay to have kids from RSU towns go into a new West Bath school, especially if it’s to the tune of half a million dollars,” he said.

“… It would be a really big hit, and obviously would detract from what the RSU is trying to do,” Durfee continued. “It also would be a dangerous precedent, so if another town decided to split away, then would the RSU again be paying for tuition to those children choosing to go to that newly-split-away town?”

Robert Brown, the West Bath resident who a year ago started the petition to withdraw from RSU 1, said his understanding in doing so was that all students would be “grandfathered,” and allowed to continue at the school they would be attending at the time of withdrawal.

The RSU 1 board unanimously approved the withdrawal agreement Sept. 22, and West Bath heard from the state education commissioner four days later that the agreement received conditional approval in Augusta, according to Oceretko.

The referendum has been tentatively set for Jan. 13, 2015 – a date chosen in West Bath and by DOE Commissioner James Rier. For the vote to be valid, West Bath needs a minimum voter turnout of 50 percent of the total ballots cast in the upcoming gubernatorial election, according to Oceretko. The withdrawal initiative’s success requires a simple majority of votes – 50 percent plus one.

If withdrawal is approved, West Bath’s final day in RSU 1 would be June 30, 2015. Students from the town could continue to attend their own school, which serves kindergarten through grade five. For the first year after withdrawal, West Bath students would be able to attend the RSU 1 school they would have gone to were the town still in the district.

After that, students from West Bath “may choose to attend any middle or secondary school that suits their educational goals or desires at which they are accepted,” the agreement states.

RSU 1 has agreed to accept middle and high school West Bath pupils as tuition students for 10 years following the withdrawal. At that point, in 2025, a new agreement would have to be negotiated, RSU 1 Superintendent Patrick Manuel said Sept. 30.

If the referendum isn’t held by Jan. 31, the withdrawal process can still continue, but the split would not go into effect until 2016, Oceretko explained.

If the referendum is held in January and succeeds, a transition committee would have to create a new school administration, forming a budget and setting a special election to establish a new school board, according to Oceretko.

West Bath residents voted 185-64 in January to initiate the process of withdrawing from RSU 1, which the town helped form in 2008.

Meanwhile, West Bath is suing RSU 1 to recover $1.9 million the town believes it overpaid in the first four years of the school district’s existence.

The lawsuit, filed in October 2012, claims West Bath should have been assessed a total of $8.2 million over the course of four years, but instead paid $10.1 million. RSU 1 owes West Bath $1.9 million, plus interest, the suit claims.

While Sagadahoc County Superior Court Justice Andrew Horton ruled in June that Regional School Unit 1 overcharged West Bath more than $1.9 million over four years, he stopped short of awarding repayment to West Bath for the overcharges, opting to leave that issue and others to be decided at trial.

The case has been scheduled for the first week of December.

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

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.