Members of St. George’s Education Options Committee want to reconcile with the board of Regional School Unit 13.

While that was the consensus of a majority of those attending a Jan. 19 meeting, it was clear that the group wants to keep its options open.

The meeting began with a statement from committee Chairman Terry Driscoll. He said it was time for the group to move beyond an effort to persuade the RSU 13 to let St. George eighth-grade students remain at the local school after the district reconfigures grade level structures in September.

A request to have that decision be reconsidered was denied by the RSU 13 board Jan. 6, in a vote that was split in terms of members, and lost by only five points in the proportional, weighted voting system used by that board.

Calculations show withdrawal could save money

At the Jan. 19 meeting, the Education Options Committee heard a presentation by former School Administrative District 50 Business Manager John Spear, who is working for St. George as a consultant. Spear showed the committee a spreadsheet he created that would allow them to see what the town’s costs for education would be under a variety of scenarios.

Spear projected changes to the town’s mil rate and per-pupil cost in the event St. George decided to withdraw from the RSU and paid the costs to continue to educate kindergarten through eighth-grade students in town and send those in grades nine through 12 to a nearby high school.

Spear said the property tax levy to the town, if such a plan had been in place in the current year, would have been $213,000 lower than was actually paid.

He did not include one-time set-up costs in his projections, and assumed tuition would be paid for all high school students. Career and technical education were also considered in his estimates, he said.

“This is a range of possibilities,” Driscoll said. “If we were to pursue this option, we’d have to get into a more detailed budget.”

Spear told the committee that his projections, which used the towns of Bristol and Lincolnville for comparison, did not consider the cost of any future school construction. He said local-only debt for buildings in Cushing and Rockland would continue to be shared as is currently done by all towns in the RSU, unless withdrawal negotiations changed that situation.

Ownership of the St. George School would have to be negotiated as part of any separation agreement with RSU 13, Driscoll said.

As far as building a high school in St. George was concerned, “the cost would be astronomical without state assistance,” Spear said.

“High schools are expensive,” he said.

In response to concerns that RSU 13 might refuse to accept St. George students at the newly reconfigured Oceanside High School, committee member Josh McPhail said it was his understanding that state law constrained local districts from banding together to refuse tuitioned students from an outside town.

“There’ll be plenty of other schools that will take our kids,” he said.

Select Board Chairman William Reinhardt said he had received a call from Watershed School Director Will Galloway, telling him ninth- through 12th-grade students from St. George were invited to apply to Watershed, a fully accredited private high school in Rockland. Currently three students from St. George attend Watershed and an equal number are graduates of the school.

Committee seeks new direction

Driscoll said the committee’s original charge was to delineate educational options for the community, and called for suggestions for recommendations for the Select Board beyond the eighth grade situation.

“This is a two-step process,” said McPhail. He said the first step was to consider whether the town was best served by remaining part of the RSU. Depending on the answer to that question, he said, the town might then look at how to provide education for its high school students.

Driscoll said the committee should begin to focus on issues of governance that had an impact on all six of the towns in RSU 13. He suggested coming up with a list of benchmarks that would demonstrate better communication and collaboration between the board and the municipalities that pay to its budget.

“We have to give the RSU more opportunity to respond to issues that remain unsettled,” he said.

Driscoll, who also serves on the Select Board, suggested that body propose a meeting with RSU 13 Superintendent Judith Lucarelli and board Chairman Ruth Anne Hohfeld.

“We’ve raised a lot of questions,” said Driscoll. “We need to hear from them.”

Primarily, he said, the RSU needs to delineate a guiding philosophy “that precludes a community from investing itself in the school district” and explain its position regarding local school advisory committees.

Other members of the options committee agreed that the RSU had been unreceptive to suggestions and oversight from municipal representatives.

Driscoll said the RSU should explain the metrics used to evaluate its own performance and the methods by which it reports its success or failure to the towns, “the people that pay the bills.”

“We owe them the opportunity to deal with these questions,” Driscoll said. “There are deeper issues of which the eighth grade [transfer] is symptomatic. We should be asking ourselves what sort of advice the school board should elicit from the towns.”

Reinhardt said it would be fruitless to meet with only Lucarelli and Hohfeld.

“They’re going to say it’s up to the board,” Reinhardt said. Committee members agreed that it was important to have the complete board present to hear and participate in a discussion.

The committee agreed to recommend that the Select Board request be placed on the agenda for the RSU 13 board’s Feb. 3 meeting, and that the invitation be sent to all members of the RSU 13 board. Many committee members expressed concern that speaking during the allocated public comment period would not invite the kind of back-and-forth discussion that they want to have.

“Boards in the past have had close relationships with the municipalities because they were local schools,” said Driscoll. “School Administrative District 50 still kept those relationships. Now we’re getting to a point where municipalities have to connect with what’s going on with the school board.”

Driscoll said a new structure was needed for any new organization and that the RSU had to be accountable to the six towns that pay its costs. He suggested that copies of the request to meet with the RSU 13 board be sent to all municipalities in the district.

You can’t take more than $20 million and say ‘go away,'” he said.

Reinhardt said Hohfeld told him last summer that she would put the St. George Select Board on an agenda if they requested it.

Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, is the primary sponsor of a bill titled “An Act to Allow a Municipality to Withdraw From a Regional School Unit” that would allow a three-year waiting period before withdrawal, mandated by current law, to be waived.

Kruger said last year’s omnibus bill, incorporating a number of measures designed to fix the consolidation law, only allowed communities to withdraw from the newly formed districts if they joined another district within one year.

“That does not work for St. George for geographic reasons,” Kruger said. He said the new bill would outline certain financial conditions under which a town could leave one district without necessarily joining another.

Kruger said the bill had only a slim chance of passing and that other changes to the consolidation law were under consideration. If his bill passed, Kruger said it would most likely take effect in September.

Driscoll said withdrawal from RSU 13 was an option that St. George would “reluctantly take” if the town felt it was not well served to remain in the RSU. Committee members McPhail and Josiah Wilson, who also serves on the RSU 13 board, said they supported withdrawal as the best choice after all other options had been exhausted.

The committee will recommend to the Select Board that an article be placed on the warrant for the March 8 town meeting asking voters to consider allocating funds to pay for added staffing needs should the RSU 13 board reconsider a moratorium on moving the eight grade. Driscoll said that would be in the vicinity of $50,000 for salary and benefits for one teaching position. Lucarelli said Dec. 3 that would be the savings gained by consolidating eighth and ninth grades in Thomaston.

There was consensus that the town needed to continue on what Driscoll called “two parallel roads. We need to try to get a working relationship with the RSU.” He said the town should also have a committee that would make in-depth plans for withdrawal from the district, in the event that a satisfactory result was not obtained from efforts to work cooperatively within the RSU.

Inmate numbers tipped scales

In a final discussion, Wilson told the committee that the vote to uphold the RSU 13 decision to move St. George eighth-graders to the Thomaston campus would have gone the other way, had correct census data been used in the apportionment of voting points assigned to members of the RSU 13 board.

Although the Maine State Prison in Thomaston was closed in 2002, population figures used for the apportionment were taken from the 2000 census. Wilson said the difference would have meant the decision would have been in favor of letting the St. George students remain at the local school, by a two-point margin.

For the purpose of voting, inmates at the prison are considered legal residents of the last town they lived in, before being incarcerated. Even while the planning process for RSU 13 was under way in 2008, Wilson questioned the constitutionality of allowing people to vote in one town while counting them for the purpose representation in situations where one-person, one-vote is impractical.

The next meeting of the St. George Education Options Committee is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Feb. 2 at the St. George Town Office. Because of other meetings, that date is subject to change. For updated information, visit the website at stgeorgemaine.com or call the town office at 372-6363.

The Herald Gazette Reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by e-mail at sauciello@villagesoup.com.