SACO — After nearly two years of emotional debate, the city is set to decide if it will leave Regional School Unit 23 and create its own school district.

The Nov. 5 vote is the culmination of a year of negotiations between a special city committee and the school district to draft an agreement that, if approved by voters, would allow Saco to exit the RSU it formed in 2009 with Dayton and Old Orchard Beach.

Dayton residents will vote on their own withdrawal agreement later in November.

RSU 23 was created after the passage of a 2007 state law that 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 Many communities combined school operations to avoid threatened penalties, but the penalties were later repealed and communities unhappy with the costs and loss of local control began looking at withdrawing.

The move toward withdrawal in Saco began two years ago when residents were upset with the amount of money the city contributed under a cost sharing formula. It gained momentum when district officials said Saco students could choose to attend Old Orchard Beach schools.

A group of residents circulated a petition to start the 22-step withdrawal process laid out under state law.

Saco residents who support withdrawal say they want to bring control over education funding and programming back to the city. Others who are critical of the plan question whether withdrawal will ultimately cost Saco more money and whether it will benefit students.

All agree the debate has been harmful to the relationship between Saco and Old Orchard Beach.

“There is an ‘us vs. them’ mentality that makes it virtually impossible to concentrate on education issues and initiatives,” Gary Curtis, chairman of the RSU board and a resident of Old Orchard Beach, said in a recent letter to the media announcing his support for withdrawal. “If withdrawal doesn’t succeed, I worry that we will see even more time wasted in partisan bickering and mudslinging that will not advance the educational opportunity of a single child in any of the three communities that currently make up RSU 23.”

To approve withdrawal, at least 3,782 residents – that’s 50 percent of the total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election – must cast a ballot on Nov. 5. A simple majority of those voters is needed to approve the agreement.

Vangel Cotsis, a member of the Withdrawal Committee, said he began advocating for withdrawal because of what he perceived to be inequitable distribution of money and resources across the district.

“It’s not just about the money, it’s about the balancing out of programs,” he said. “Budget votes became a competition for resources.”

But Cotsis said he and other Saco residents also were upset by a push by school officials to encourage Saco and Dayton students to attend Old Orchard Beach schools by choice. There was fear that the district would start mandating those cross-border arrangements, he said.

Ron Michaud – a former Saco mayor and current school board member who served on the Withdrawal Committee – said he had misgivings about the RSU mandate from the start, but began to push for withdrawal when he felt the RSU was not more efficient than the separate school districts. One of his main concerns now, he said, is that there is a smaller student teacher-ratio in Old Orchard Beach than in Saco.

“I recognized the disparity couldn’t continue,” he said. “This issue has been emotional. This isn’t healthy; this doesn’t help the schools or communities.”

As the withdrawal debate picked up, a group of parents formed CARE23 to monitor and question the process. The group concluded that withdrawal will not save money or improve the quality of education in Saco, according to member Tracey Collins.

The group questioned the transparency of the process, a $100 million contract between the city and Thornton Academy to educate high school students for the next decade, and the timing of a cost analysis commissioned by the city. That report, issued in two parts in the past two weeks, shows Saco could save nearly $1.4 million in the first three years after leaving the RSU.

“We need to make this decision based on fact, not the idea of returning to the mythical glory days,” Collins said.

Eric Drown, a CARE 23 member, said the whole withdrawal process “feels like a power grab” by people who support Thornton Academy and don’t want to associate with Old Orchard Beach.

“These people want to have the power to determine the future of Thornton Academy and Saco education,” he said.

Kevin Lafortune, an RSU 23 school board member who supports withdrawal, said he believes the RSU 23 arrangement has not worked well for the communities it serves.

“RSU 23 brought together three communities that, for the most part, had been independent for a very long time. There’s a deep independent streak in any town that’s had its own school district for a long time,” he said. “Maybe it would have been better if we’d just taken the penalties. It would have been a lot less stressful and we’d have better relations with our neighbors.”

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be reached at 791-6315 or at:

ggraham@pressherald.com.