SACO – The City Council agreed Monday to hire a Portland firm to conduct a financial analysis that residents and school officials say is necessary for voters to fully understand the implications of withdrawing from Regional School Unit 23.

The decision to pay Purdy Powers & Co. as much as $35,000 to develop a five-year hypothetical school budget comes as the city and school district finalize a divorce agreement that would allow Saco to leave RSU 23 and form its own school district. The agreement, which will be reviewed by the Department of Education, would only take effect if city voters decide to withdraw from the school unit Saco formed with Old Orchard Beach and Dayton under the state’s 2007 school consolidation law.

A citywide vote on withdrawal could come as early as November if the Department of Education approves the agreement in time to hold a series of public hearings before the Nov. 5 election.

Saco residents voted in July 2012 to form a withdrawal committee to hammer out the agreement, which is similar to a divorce agreement. It divides assets and lays out a plan for educating students over the next decade. It will include a 10-year contract between Saco and Thornton Academy to educate the city’s high school students.

Dayton residents last year voted separately to pursue withdrawal and a withdrawal agreement is expected to be approved Aug. 13 by the RSU 23 Board of Directors. The board will sign Saco’s withdrawal agreement the same night so it can be sent to Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen for review.

Members of CARE 23, a group of citizen journalists formed to keep tabs on the withdrawal process, have pushed for an in-depth cost analysis that includes a comparison of costs with Saco as part of the school district and on its own. In June, the group submitted a petition with more than 300 signatures to the council asking for the financial analysis.

“The independent financial analysis they’ve decided to do is not the same kind of financial analysis CARE 23 called for,” said group member Eric Drown. “We wanted a comparative analysis. What they’ve done is give us one scenario looking out five years. Without the comparison, it’s hard to make a judgment about whether we’d be better off staying or withdrawing from the RSU.”

During a discussion about the financial analysis at Monday’s council meeting, Councilor Marston Lovell said the Saco Withdrawal Committee, of which he is also a member, did not discuss doing a comparative analysis. There is no requirement in state law that communities look at the financial implications of leaving a regional school unit.

Lovell did not provide a timeline for when the financial analysis will be done and findings released to the public.

Gary Curtis, chairman of the RSU 23 Board of Directors, said the financial implications of leaving should be secondary to the potential impact on education.

“The quality of education and opportunities in the classroom should be the primary concern,” he said. “The primary concern is the kids sitting at desks in the classroom.”

 

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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