RSU 1 seeks new legal opinion on cost-sharing formula

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BATH — The Regional School Unit 1 Board of Directors voted unanimously Monday to obtain another legal opinion on whether a law that created the school district should apply to all or part of the local tax calculations.

Board members hope to have that opinion in time for their Monday, April 23, meeting.

The local contribution from RSU 1’s five communities – the funds raised through taxes – is split into two pieces: a minimum amount required by the state, and a portion over and above that amount.

State subsidy to the district is presented on a form based on the essential programs and services model.

“It basically states on that sheet (that) … for the district to receive the subsidy that they are going to send us, we need to raise a certain dollar amount at the local level,” RSU 1 board Chairman Tim Harkins said on Monday. “And they break that down by community. They say each community should raise X amount of dollars.”

The other local contribution piece is the additional amount each community raises, beyond the EPS model. That contribution stipulates a cost-sharing formula based on equal thirds: student population, state valuation of a community and the community’s population in the most recent census.

Harkins noted that when it came time to approve the district’s first budget, in 2008, there was ambiguity about how the EPS formula should be applied to the local share. He recalled that if RSU 1 applied that formula to the entire local share, “we felt there was a possibility that one community might not reach the state-required minimum, therefore putting us in potential jeopardy of not complying with the state requirement, and not receiving state funds.”

William Shuttleworth, superintendent at the time, received conflicting opinions when he sought legal advice, Harkins said. William Stockmeyer, who wrote the state legislation, said it should be applied to the entire local share, while Roger Therriault, Bath’s city solicitor, said it should only be applied to the additional amount, the chairman noted.

The School Board voted unanimously in 2008 to apply the formula to only the additional funds, and to allocate the other required costs according to state policy. The board has used that breakdown ever since.

“Regardless of how the board made their decision, it was done publicly … with full disclosure,” Harkins said.

But several community members have recently questioned the use of two formulas.

David King, a Woolwich selectman, said that under the current calculation his town could be assessed a nearly 10 percent tax increase for fiscal 2013, the largest of the five member communities.

“I thought it was supposed to be divided up, one-third, one-third and one-third,” he said.

King added that the year after next, Woolwich would actually benefit under the current calculation, “but we’ve got to follow the law … we can’t decide which laws we want to follow, and which laws we don’t want to follow.”

Paul Mateosian, Bath’s assistant city manager and a West Bath resident, said he could see both sides of the argument, but noted, “decisions were made, they were open and transparent, and I think probably the worst thing that can be done, at least for the health of the RSU, is changing the formula every time the (cost breakdown) spreadsheet looks one way or another.”

Harkins noted that if the School Board applies EPS to the entire local contribution, next year’s proposed budget would not be impacted. Instead, the cost-sharing allocations between the communities would be subject to change.

“As we talk about other potential options for dividing up the local portion, in any scenario some communities would stand to gain, and others would not gain,” Harkins said.

Chet Garrison, a School Board member from West Bath and former selectman, apologized to audience members about the issue. He said the district must move forward, and that it needed another legal opinion on the matter.

“We have to do whatever it takes, whatever we can do, to make it right for everybody,” he said. “… And it has to apply to this … upcoming budget.”

“We try to make good decisions,” Harkins said. “But we don’t always make the best decisions. And, that said, I feel strongly that we’ve always made decisions that are in the best interest of our students, of the School Board and of the municipalities.”

The April 23 School Board meeting, which will include a public budget forum, will be held at Bath Middle School at 6 p.m.

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.