ST. FRANCIS, Maine — After nearly an hour of discussion and a 56-21 vote, St. Francis residents authorized the creation of a withdrawal committee Monday evening to explore the possibility of leaving Maine School Administrative District 27.
Residents in Wallagrass and Eagle Lake already have formed their own withdrawal committees, making St. Francis the third of six district member towns to do so in the past several months.
The town of Winterville withdrew from the district in January 2015. Fort Kent, St. John Plantation and New Canada are the other SAD 27 members.
Thirty-two St. Francis voters signed a petition last month, calling for withdrawal from SAD 27, which led to a Feb. 27 public hearing on the matter.
St. Francis First Selectman Darrell Mitchell opened the March 21 discussion by emphasizing that the evening’s vote was not an up or down on withdrawing from the district but only a “first step.”
The process of looking into the options of staying or leaving a school district is a long one, with more than 20 steps to be taken, he said.
“There’s a lot of back and forth that’s going to happen,” Mitchell said.
“Rule No. 1 is that the town can stop this process at any time,” Mitchell said.
Part of the article passed by voters Monday night also authorized the soon to be created withdrawal committee to spend as much as $25,000 to explore withdrawal options.
Residents met Monday in the gymnasium of the former St. Francis Elementary school, which SAD 27 closed last year because of budget constraints and dwindling enrollment.
“I am not for leaving the district,” Carla Thibodeau said before the start of the meeting. Thibodeau, who said she works for the school district, and her husband raised two sons who attended the local school.
“The district does a lot for the town,” she said. “We’d be losing a lot if we break away.”
Thibodeau said she had mixed feelings when the local elementary school closed last year.
“It was a great little school,” she said. “But going to Fort Kent has opened up a lot of opportunities (for students).”
Much of the discussion and information presented Monday revolved around the financial implications to St. Francis of remaining in or withdrawing from SAD 27.
More than 60 percent of the town’s budget goes toward education, according to Mitchell, with $299,825 being paid to the school district this year. The number of students from St. Francis started at 43, but it since has dropped to 37, for an average per pupil cost to the town of about $8,000. By comparison, Fort Kent pays about $4,500 for each of its more than 550 students, Mitchell said.
The current SAD 27 budget formula is based on the state’s property valuations in each member town and not the number of students it sends to the district. This inequity is what is driving communities such as Eagle Lake and St. Francis to push for withdrawal from the district, he said.
St. Francis resident and SAD 27 board member Keith Jandreau said recently suggested changes to the district funding formula that would have addressed the inequity question went nowhere with the school board.
With St. Francis and other towns in the district looking into withdrawal, Jandreau said, “it will send a message to (the school board) that we mean business.”
Withdrawing from the district and tuitioning students to SAD 27 schools would, according to Mitchell’s initial estimates, save St. Francis taxpayers approximately $75,000 per year. But those are preliminary numbers and a lot has to be examined and determined before final estimates can be made available.
Several people in the audience questioned what would happen if Eagle Lake and Wallagrass pulled out of the district and how that could impact the distribution of education costs. Such a reduction in district membership likely would affect all local communities, even if they are only tuitioning students and not full members of the district, Mitchell said.
The amount of money the state has to assist towns that choose to opt out of school districts is limited, Mitchell added. Any subsidies St. Francis would get if it went on its own may get smaller as more and more towns around the state opt to leave their respective school districts.
Few in attendance Monday night expressed much confidence in the state of Maine addressing the cost of education at the local level.
“It’s absolutely not getting better any time soon,” Bobbi Lee Martin said.
Martin also said that special education services, which can be very expensive and often change from year to year, would largely be the responsibility of St. Francis for its students needing them. Being part of a district helps spread that cost around and may leverage additional state funding.
The impact withdrawal would have on local control of education also was a topic of discussion.
By withdrawing and tuitioning children to district schools, residents of St. Francis would have no representation on the school board that would be managing those schools.
That lack of local control and input left some in the audience with an uneasy feeling.
The unlikely scenario in which St. Francis provides education at its own schools would alleviate that lack of local control but at a higher cost.
A four-person committee will be formed to meet over the coming months to gather more information and review possible withdrawal plans.