At a public hearing April 23, Town Education Committee Chairman Terry Driscoll said St. George is at the third stage of a 22-step process toward withdrawal from Regional School Unit 13.

The town is set to vote on whether to officially begin the process of withdrawal Monday, May 13 at the polls, one day prior to town meeting. If the town votes to proceed, it is not obligated or authorized to withdraw, just to continue exploring the idea, he said.

In the 2013-2014 town budget, Town Manager John Falla earmarked $25,000 to be appropriated for potential withdrawal costs if the referendum is approved. The money will likely pay for legal counsel, consultants and engineering studies, said Driscoll.

Withdrawal is not a destination, but a path toward improving education, he said.

With 65 percent of municipal taxes apportioned toward education, what is the town's expectation of education? Driscoll asked, providing statistics showing weak performance by Oceanside High School West, St. George School and former Georges Valley High School students — a majority or half not meeting state standards in math.

The Town Education Committee — formed in 2011 by the select board to investigate and research educational options — recommends St. George create an independent district, operating a K-8 school.

Driscoll cited reasons for withdrawal including: the probability of continued consolidation of schools, cutting staff positions, special curriculum, and a school budget pared to the bone.

If withdrawal is adopted and followed to fruition, older students would enroll in area high schools, providing they are accepted.

The committee has met informally with Camden Hills Regional High School and Medomak Valley High School superintendents. Both districts said they would consider accepting St. George students.

The tuition rate is set by the state. St. George currently pays about $13,000 per student, according to Driscoll.

Some residents at the meeting were concerned the community could lose authority if St. George students were sent to other schools.

Driscoll said St. George students are well received and the committee would seek protections to have their voices heard.

"When six out of 10 kids graduate without meeting state math and science standards — we have a problem," he said, acknowledging it is a problem that persists today.

Answering financial questions from the public, Driscoll said the two financial analyses done to figure the cost of operating an independent district showed the expense would be comparable to what is funded now, basically "a wash."

One analysis was done internally — within the education committee — and the other was drafted by former School Administrative District 50 Business Manager John Spear.

A third analysis will be completed, factoring the effect of Gov. Paul LePage's proposed biennial budget, he said.

If the town votes to move forward with withdrawal, a committee will be formed of five citizens to draft the withdrawal plan and negotiate with RSU 13‚ including deciding debt allocation and ownership of the St. George School building.

Driscoll said when he spoke with RSU 13 Superintendent Lew Collins and School Board Chairman Tess Kilgour, their perspective was "towns need to do what they need to do."

The withdrawal process would take about a year.

The final plan must be approved by the commissioner of education and later would face a second municipal vote in March 2014 or November 2014.

To set up an independent school district, the town must approve the measure with a 51 percent majority of the number of residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election.

If the referendum is defeated, St. George would remain a member of RSU 13.

"Right now it's an incomplete picture. Do we continue to color in more, or do we know enough to stop right now?," Driscoll asked of whether to continue seeking withdrawal options.

A second informational hearing is scheduled for Thursday, May 2, at 7 p.m. at the town office.

Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at jlaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com.