West Bath meeting on RSU 1 secession draws large crowd

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WEST BATH — The Board of Selectmen next week could set a date for the town to vote on whether to begin the process of withdrawing from Regional School Unit 1.

A referendum, however, will have to occur after the Nov. 5 general election.

The board, and a committee it appointed to study the withdrawal process, heard public input about withdrawal during a packed meeting Monday at West Bath Elementary School.

The selectmen meet again Monday, Oct. 28.

“We as a board have not formally made any recommendation, obviously, for anything, because this is just in the infancy of gathering information, and looking for public input,” board Chairwoman Paula Nelson told the crowd.

Robert Brown, who started the petition, said Oct. 16 that the town certified 127 signatures, more than the 102 required (10 percent of the number of residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election).

If West Bath residents approve the referendum, negotiations would begin between the town and RSU 1, which also includes Bath, Arrowsic, Phippsburg and Woolwich. A negotiated withdrawal plan would then go back to West Bath for a second and final vote.

“I’d like to stress that it’s a two-step process of voting,” Brown told the meeting, noting that the first referendum asks the question of whether residents want to pursue the withdrawal process.

“You’re not committing yourself to a withdrawal, necessarily, on the first vote,” he added. “You’re committing yourself to some work, by a lot of people, to go through that process, but it will be very informative. So you will know at that point whether it’s the logical thing to do, or whether we should stick with RSU 1.”

Brown said local control of costs, school choice and preservation of the town’s school are issues of concern.

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 last October, 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. The suit claims RSU 1 owes West Bath $1.9 million, plus interest.

RSU 1 voters will decide Nov. 5 whether to fund a $5.2 million bond for improvements at several district schools. Of that sum, $69,000 would be spent at West Bath, which includes restoration of the building’s roof and securing of its front entrance.

RSU 1 owns the West Bath school, and all other schools in the district. Many residents at the meeting expressed a desire for the school to return to West Bath, if the town secedes from the district.

By a 68-17 vote, West Bath residents in March defeated a new cost-sharing formula that assesses RSU 1’s communities on a per-pupil basis. The district as a whole passed the formula, 580-138.

Although subsidies and special education reimbursements had been spread between all five communities, the new formula directs those funds to the actual communities generating the revenues. Bath and Woolwich receive subsidies, while Arrowsic and Phippsburg receive a special education reimbursement. West Bath receives neither.

“It’s an issue of the problems we’ve had in cost-sharing, for West Bath as compared to other members of the RSU, and the increased cost to the taxpayers,” Brown said last week. “… I think it was the tax bite that finally got to us.”

“We had (school choice) before,” he added Monday, “and it would seem to me that we ought to be able to get it again,” Brown said.

RSU 1 parents can send their children to any district elementary school outside of their community, through an application process, on a first-come, first-served basis and as long as there is room available, RSU 1 Business Manager Ruth Moore explained. Middle school children can attend either Bath Middle School or Woolwich Central School, depending on space.

High school students can only attend Morse High School, unless they have siblings who had attended a school outside the district at the time RSU 1 was formed; this “grandfather” policy also applies to students in the lower grades, who would like to attend an elementary or middle school their sibling attended outside the district.

Parents can send their children out of district, but have to pay the tuition for those students themselves, Moore said.

Jonathan Davis, West Bath town administrator, noted that before West Bath joined RSU 1, the town would pay the local tuition cost for a resident student who wanted to go out of district; but if the tuition at that school was higher than the local tuition cost, the parents would have to fund the difference.

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

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.