St. George, RSU 13 withdrawal agreement in the works

By Juliette Laaka | Jun 13, 2014

St. George — Regional School Unit 13 and the St. George Withdrawal Committee have been in negotiations for months, seeking an arrangement where the district would accept St. George students once they reach ninth-grade should the town withdraw from the district.

Withdrawal Committee Chairman Terry Driscoll said the district and committee are closer to reaching an agreement, and discussions between attorneys leads him to be hopeful they will be able to come to terms favorable to both parties.

"These things are never done until they are done, but we are hopeful and cautious," Driscoll said.

Driscoll said he hopes the RSU 13 board will vote on a potential agreement in July, as the town will vote on whether to withdraw in November. A vote at subsequent meetings may be cutting time too short, he said. William Reinhardt, chairman of the St. George Select Board, said once an agreement is reached, it must be sent to the Commissioner of Education for approval.

Interim Superintendent Michael Wilhelm said June 12 the district is still negotiating with the town, and cannot discuss stipulations of a possible agreement. Although he said the parties are getting closer to an arrangement, he would not confirm the board will vote on a compromise in July. "It is still a work in progress," he said.

Should the town withdraw, it is required to have an agreement with a secondary school to accept their students. Thus far, Camden Hills Regional High School and Medomak Valley High School (RSU 40) have given the go-ahead in agreeing to enroll the St. George school population. Camden voted in May to allow St. George students to attend the Rockport school. RSU 40 is expected take a final vote on the matter Thursday, June 19, according to St. George Select Board meeting minutes.

A public meeting, set for Thursday, June 26, at 7 p.m. at the St. George Town Office is scheduled to update citizens on educational issues associated with withdrawal. The town will vote Nov. 2 whether to withdraw from RSU 13 and create an independent school district or to remain part of the current system.

In a combative tone earlier this year, the district and St. George exchanged accusations of misleading statements and harsh proposals to coerce the town to remain in the district.

Driscoll said the earlier disagreements were a result of misunderstandings on both sides, and that now, the parties are more satisfied with recent discussions regarding contentious points of the earlier proposal.

The district's withdrawal committee, tasked to negotiate with St. George, is comprised of school board members Donald Robishaw Jr., Christine Curtis, Esther Kilgour and Steven Roberts.

Previous proposal and counterproposal

At issue previously were four terms of the withdrawal negotiations.

Reinhardt, also a town education committee member, said in March a proposed agreement submitted by RSU 13 was intended to coerce St. George to remain part of the district. He contended the agreement offered was harsh and not representative of the full board's view.

The district said the full board took action last June and authorized negotiations by the superintendent in consultation with legal counsel. In January, the chairman of the school board, then Esther "Tess" Kilgour, appointed a withdrawal committee, with no objection by the board, the statement issued by the district said.

Responding to claims by Reinhardt that if the counterproposal was implemented it would have a negative impact on the RSU 13 budget as well as punish St. George students and taxpayers, the board said the preference of the committee has been to keep St. George high school students if done fairly.

"However, St. George demands that RSU 13 commit to accept all of St. George's secondary students, without any commitment on its part to send them," said the statement.

The district also said St. George wants other towns to essentially subsidize the education of their students since the tuition rate offered by St. George is $2,500 less than the cost per student the district spends. The rate of $9,200 offered by St. George is a state-set number. RSU 13 spends about $11,700 educating each student, according to state data.

"This could saddle RSU 13 towns with an additional $230,000 per year in taxes to make up for the actual cost of St. George students," the response said. This would add up to $2.3 million over a 10-year contract.

Reinhardt called the most objectionable elements of the proposal the district's refusal to accept St. George students on a tuition basis, responsibility for the town to assume non-St. George debt, and their responsibility to administrative contracts.

"Given St. George's geographic and historical connection to Rockland, the board's prior indication of a preference to accept tuition students from other communities and countries, the RSU's declining enrollment and continuing budget shortfalls, it is disturbing the counterproposal would absolutely refuse St. George students who wish to attend high school in Rockland," Reinhart said at the March 6 RSU 13 board meeting.

He added if the board feels its acceptance of students would in some way impose a burden on the district, the committee is willing to discuss another financial formula.

The counterproposal also stated St. George would assume 35 percent of all outstanding district debt, which is contradictory to all other withdrawal plans accepted by the state, and stipulations of state law, Reinhardt said.

The district contends St. George wants to walk away from its share of debt commitments. "All this debt was issued or assumed by the RSU, and each member agreed to pay its share. St. George cannot simply walk away, leaving the other towns to pay St. George's share," the district said.

"St. George cannot agree to fund a debt that it has no role in approving and does not affect its own facilities," Reinhardt said in his statement.

The board's proposed agreement also requires the town pay a significant portion of the remaining contracts for several administrative staff members. Reinhardt contended this is contrary to the requirements of state law.

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Juliette Laaka
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Juliette primarily covers the cops and courts beat for The Courier-Gazette.

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