West Bath's withdrawal from RSU 1 requires voter turnout

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WEST BATH — The town’s effort to withdraw from Regional School Unit 1 doesn’t just require more yeas than nays to succeed; it also needs enough voters to show up.

The decision goes to the polls Jan. 13, and absentee ballots are available in the meantime.

West Bath needs a minimum voter turnout of 50 percent of the total ballots cast in the November gubernatorial election – 560 votes – for the January referendum to be valid. The withdrawal initiative’s success requires a simple majority of votes: 50 percent plus one.

If withdrawal is approved, a three-member transition committee will be formed. The panel will create a new school administration, form a budget, and set a special election to establish a new school board.

West Bath’s final day with 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 if the town were 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,” according to the withdrawal agreement, which the state approved earlier this month.

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

Tuition to RSU 1 is determined each year by a state-set formula, according to information provided at a withdrawal public hearing – the 17th step in a 22-step state-mandated withdrawal process – held at the West Bath School.

The withdrawal committee had Portland-based firm Planning Decisions estimate the possible impact seceding from RSU 1 would have on West Bath’s budget, without changes in how the town’s elementary school operates. The town could save about $398,000, cutting its education budget by 14 percent, the committee estimated.

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

“I think we as a town, it would be in our best interest to pursue an independent, stand-alone school system,” Selectman Peter Oceretko, co-chairman of the town’s Withdrawal Committee, said during the hearing. “I regard our adventure into consolidation … as a failure. … We have an opportunity presented before us to try to do it ourselves again. It’s nothing new to us; we’ve done it before.”

Tim Harkins, chairman of the RSU 1 Board of Directors, told the audience that “I value this school; I value the kids that go here. And I wish you the best of luck. … If the numbers prove out to be as they’ve been presented, and you want to save money, you should vote for this. If you want more control over what happens at this school, you should vote for this.”

He said RSU 1’s leaders have been “great stewards for this school. We’ve hired a great administrator here. We’ve hired some great staff. We’ve implemented expeditionary learning.”

Harkins encouraged the town, if it withdraws, to make sure it has strong leadership in its School Board, principal and superintendent, “so that you can figure out what your vision is, and implement it.”

West Bath sued RSU 1 and member city Bath to recover $1.9 million the town believes it overpaid in the first four years of the school district’s existence. The case, scheduled to be tried this month, was settled after the Bath City Council earlier this month approved paying West Bath $1.2 million.

The insurance carrier for RSU 1 agreed to also pay West Bath $50,000.

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.