SAD 75 withdrawal process at stake in Harpswell vote

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HARPSWELL — The fewer than two dozen residents who attended Tuesday’s public hearing on the Town Meeting warrant forcefully aired their views for and against creating a committee to study withdrawing from School Administrative District 75.

Article 2 on the June 14 warrant would authorize the Board of Selectmen to create a withdrawal committee and spend $55,000 to create a plan detailing how the town would provide for the education of the 494 Harpswell students enrolled in SAD 75.

The commissioner of the state Department of Education would have to approve the plan, and then, after a public hearing, the town would have to approve withdrawal by a two-thirds vote.

Robert McIntyre, who is spearheading the withdrawal effort, started out Tuesday by offering a summary of his side’s perspective. Reading from a prepared statement, he argued that Harpswell will pay less per student, and have more local control over education, if the town withdraws from SAD 75 and pays tuition to send its students to SAD 75 or another district.

He said he is confident Brunswick and SAD 75 would accept Harpswell students, and quoted Jim Rier, deputy commissioner of the department of education, as saying that he knows of no case where tuition students have been refused. However Rier said he does not keep track of that information, and would not know if students had been refused or not.

McIntyre also identified some Maine communities that have their own elementary schools, but allow parents to send their students to different districts for secondary school, including Damariscotta, Newcastle and Jefferson, all of which share a superintendent with each other and four other towns.

McIntyre also encouraged the town to act before SAD 75 takes on additional debt to renovate Mt. Ararat High School.

Joanne Rogers, a School Board member from Harpswell, spoke against beginning the withdrawal process. She said it would remove local control from the town.

Rogers said if Harpswell sends its students to SAD 75 or Brunswick, the town will not be represented on either district’s school board. Harpswell now has four representatives on the SAD 75 board.

John Chiquoine, who also spoke against withdrawal, said he worries about losing control over the quality of education.

He said there are two affected parties in this issues, taxpayers and school children, and “if we were to withdraw from SAD 75, we would do quite a good job for the taxpayer constituents, but I also believe that for the older children we would have abandoned them and will no longer have any great input to the quality of their education.”

Most other speakers supported withdrawal, and expressed concern that Harpswell is paying a disproportionate amount of the SAD 75 budget compared to the other towns in the district – Bowdoin, Bowdoinham and Topsham.

They cited statistics like the percent of district students that are from Harpswell, 18.4 percent, versus Harpswell’s share what the four towns pay the district, 38.5 percent.

But contrary to what some withdrawal supporters suggested, that number does not represent Harpswell’s share of the total budget. According to official SAD 75 budget data, that statistic only represents the percentage that the town pays of all four towns’ local contributions; it does not take into consideration the $13.7 million that the state contributes.

Harpswell actually pays 19 percent of the total $34.2 million budget when state expenses are included, which is about the same as its percentage of SAD 75 students.

Harpswell pays a larger share of the local contribution because the town does not receive any state education aid. Through a complicated formula, the Department of Education determines the overall cost of education for a district – its Essential Programs and Services amount – and divides it between the four towns based on how many students each has in the district. With Harpswell’s 494 students, the Department of Education expected the town to pay a minimum of $5.4 million.

The state may subsidize EPS if the department determines that a town is unable to pay the full amount. But because Harpswell has high property values, the DOE decided that the town could afford the entire $5.4 million.

That was not the case for the other SAD 75 towns. For example, the DOE determined Bowdoin’s minimum local contribution to be $5.6 million for its 512  students. But the state kicked in $3.9 million based on Bowdoin’s limited ability to pay, reducing the amount the town was required to pay to $1.7 million.

“It’s not the district’s fault it costs us more,” Selectman Alison Hawkes said Tuesday. “It’s at the state level. I would much rather see us spend $55,000 to fight this funding level than beat up a School Board that has done us fine.”

Another number cited by proponents – more than $13,100 the town reportedly paid SAD 75 per Harpswell student – was questioned by Michael Wilhelm, superintendent of SAD 75.

The total reflects Harpswell’s local contribution to the budget, nearly $6.5 million (which includes the minimum local contribution, plus extra for debt service, adult education and other items) divided by its total number of students, 494. 

But Wilhelm said  he would rather see the town divide the amount it contributes by the total number of students in the district, 2,691, which would have Harpswell paying $2,413 per student.

He explained that this second calculation “reflects the fact that this is a system that involved four towns who all contribute to it … their money doesn’t go exclusively to the Harpswell kids.”

Every town shares costs for things like transportation, so Wilhelm said it isn’t accurate to just consider the number of Harpswell students when calculating how much the town pays.

“This is (an administrative) district,” he said, “not the Harpswell school (department).”

Another argument offered by McIntyre and other proponents was that the town would save money by paying tuition to send its students back into SAD 75 or another district.

“Withdrawal would give us real control over our future and a considerably lower payment per student,” McIntyre said.

According to the DOE, it costs more than $8,700 for ninth- through 12th-grade tuition and almost $8,100 for kindergarten through eighth-grade student tuition (not including transportation or special education costs).

But Wilhelm said it would be unreasonable to expect that Harpswell could send its kids to SAD 75, pay less, and expect the same quality of education. If the town sends all 494 students back to SAD 75 and spends about $8,400 (the average of the two state tuition rates) per pupil, that would deprive the district of more than $2 million for the same number of students.

“Every kid in the district would suffer and all the other towns would suffer,” he said. “You can imagine what would happen with (Advanced Placement), athletics, class sizes, any kinds of resources.”

Not every speaker on Tuesday night was staunchly opposed or in favor of  withdrawal. Signe Daniel said she wanted to form a committee to study the process, because “it’s only reasonable that every so often you re-evaluate where you’re at.”

On June 14, voters will have to decide if they agree.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.