SACO – Residents so far have few questions about a proposed agreement that would allow Saco to withdraw from Regional School Unit 23, but a more emotional debate is likely before an anticipated vote in November.

A public hearing Wednesday night was the first chance for residents to ask questions about the withdrawal agreement that lays out a plan for the city to leave the regional school unit it formed with Dayton and Old Orchard Beach under the state’s 2007 consolidation law. While about 100 people attended, fewer than 10 residents asked questions or made comments.

A second public hearing, which will be scheduled once the Department of Education sets an election date, will focus on whether withdrawal is a good option for the city. That hearing must take place within 10 days of the election, which city and school officials hope will be on Nov. 5 to coincide with a municipal election.

A 2007 state law was intended to cut administrative costs by merging the state’s 290 school districts into 80 regional units. Many communities combined school operations to avoid threatened penalties, although the penalties were later repealed and communities unhappy with the costs and loss of local control began looking at withdrawing.

The Maine Department of Education last month granted conditional approval for the Saco withdrawal agreement, which a four-member committee has spent much of the last year negotiating with the RSU. It is similar to a divorce agreement in that is divides assets, outlines a transition to an independent school unit and spells out where students will be educated for the next 10 years.

Dayton also is considering withdrawing from the RSU and held a public hearing on its withdrawal agreement Tuesday night. Dayton residents are expected to vote on withdrawal later in November at the request of town officials who wanted to first see if Saco leaves the RSU.

The emotions surrounding the debate about whether to withdraw were evident at times during Wednesday’s public hearing, when audience members applauded some speakers and questioned if others from outside the city should be allowed to speak.

City and school officials expect emotions to remain high throughout the process, but urged voters to carefully review the agreement and make decisions based on fact.

“There’s emotions involved because you’re talking about children and their future and taxes and their impact,” said Ron Michaud, a school board member and former Saco mayor who has long advocated for withdrawal from the RSU. “But we need to keep this as unemotional as possible. It’s complex and there’s a lot of data to understand.”

Many of the questions asked of the RSU school board related to a 10-year, $100 million contract between Saco and Thornton Academy, the private school attended by the city’s high school students. The Department of Education required a 10-year contract, but a group of residents known as CARE 23 has been critical of the contract and whether it was negotiated with proper transparency.

Michael Lafortune, a Saco resident and former RSU 23 superintendent who negotiated two previous contracts with Thornton Academy, asked if the proposed contract eliminated language for special education programs included in the current contract. Thornton Headmaster Rene Menard said the contract is virtually the same in regards to special education and he anticipates the school and city will continue to work collaboratively to educate special education students.

Resident David Labbe said he is confident the school board and withdrawal committee “followed the letter of the law” to come up with a fair agreement. He said withdrawing from the RSU would bring “healing” to the city.

The Saco City Council has hired Purdy Powers & Co. of Portland to do a financial analysis of a standalone Saco school district. City Manager Richard Michaud said that analysis — which will include a pro forma five-year budget — will be given to the city Oct. 7 and presented to the City Council on Oct. 21.

 

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

ggraham@pressherald.com