A rift between the Standish Town Council and the School Administrative District 6 board of directors over spending may lead to the breakup of Bonny Eagle, a district that consolidated more than 50 years ago and is now the largest regional school system in the state.
Standish, the district’s largest community, and Frye Island, which has no students enrolled in its schools, are jointly seeking a consultant to study the possibility of the towns withdrawing from the district.
Standish councilors started considering withdrawal after clashing with district officials at a school board meeting in September. The councilors showed up to advocate for using about $620,000 in unanticipated state funds to lower taxes to the district’s five towns – a move that would have required voter approval.
But rather than hold a referendum, the board decided to hold the money over until next year.
“Initially, it was the money aspect,” said Mike Blanck, chairman of the Standish council. He said councilors also got a poor reception from the board, which they felt was reluctant to let them speak.
“We basically said it’s really time to look at whether we want to be in SAD 6,” he said.
The 1,395 Standish students in Bonny Eagle schools account for about a third of the district’s enrollment, more than any other town. Also serving Buxton, Hollis, Limington and Frye Island, Bonny Eagle was first formed in 1959, making it among the oldest consolidated districts in the state.
If the towns decide to pursue withdrawal, they would join a rash of communities that have recently voted to leave regional school systems. Most, if not all, of the other districts pursuing breakups have only been consolidated since 2008, when a state law attempting to cut school administrative costs took effect. Bonny Eagle was formed during a similar statewide reorganization effort a half-century earlier and has endured decades of growth and generations of students.
Just this month, Saco and Dayton voted to withdraw from Regional School Unit 23, leaving Old Orchard Beach as the only remaining member of the district next to Bonny Eagle.
Now, Freeport is considering leaving Regional School Unit 5 because of a conflict with Pownal and Durham over renovations to the high school.
While Standish could decide the future of the Bonny Eagle District, talk of withdrawal actually began in the smallest community in the rural district that straddles the border between York and Cumberland counties.
Frye Island, which seceded from Standish in 1998, has tried to withdraw before. In 2005, the island community, which shuts down in the winter and sends no students to public schools, sued the state over a law that required the town to pay taxes to the district, and lost.
Soon after the school board meeting in September, Frye Island officials sent a letter to the town of Standish, saying its school taxes had become unbearable and asking if the town would join the island in looking at leaving the district, said Standish Town Manager Gordon Billington.
Frye Island Town Manager Wayne Fournier didn’t respond last week to requests for information about the tax rate.
Standish officials didn’t know the exact numbers for Frye Island, but, Blanck said, “they’re really getting bombed.”
With the September school board meeting fresh in their minds, Standish councilors met with Fournier to talk about working together on a withdrawal plan, Billington said. In October, the council approved sending out a request for proposals to study the costs and benefits of withdrawal, with a cost cap of $7,500.
No response was returned to the town by the Nov. 7 deadline.
“We’re still looking,” Billington said. Blanck said he hopes to award a contract next month.
The request for proposals asks for a study of the financial and educational impacts of withdrawing from the district and of the different possibilities for reorganizing with other communities. The target date for completion is March 2014.
Superintendent Frank Sherburne and board chairwoman Charlotte Dufresne didn’t return calls seeking comment for this story.
Sherburne was recently at the center of a public quarrel between the teachers union and the school board over complaints lodged by the union. Blanck, the Standish council chairman, said the talk of withdrawal is not related to that issue.
Asked how they thought a breakup would affect Standish and the district, school board members said the board has a policy that any comments to the media must come from the chairwoman or the superintendent. A couple of members representing Standish, however, offered their thoughts as Standish residents.
“I can only watch and wait,” said Todd Delaney. “As a parent, I have a lot of questions and I’m waiting for a lot more information from my town.”
Daniel Kasprzyk, another board member from Standish, said withdrawal is worth at least looking at.
“If they want to pursue that, spending 10 grand to find out what it wound entail is probably appropriate money spent,” he said.
Students’ opinions were a bit sharper.
Sophomores Angie Hassapelis and Elizabeth Sukalas, both of Buxton, said they wouldn’t want to see their friends from Standish leave the school. But if the change happened down the road, they said, it could be for the best for students.
“We’re all shoulder-to-shoulder walking through the halls. (The crowding) is pretty bad,” said Hassapelis, 15.
Sukalas said she wishes she could have gone to high school just with kids from Buxton.
“I don’t like when they put towns together,” she said.
Spencer Durkee, a senior from Standish, said he likes being part of a larger community. “I like Bonny Eagle,” he said.
Junior Lane Poirier, also of Standish, could see the pros and cons.
“It would be cool to have your own school,” he said, “but you wouldn’t know as many people.”
A breakup of the district would be life-altering for athletes, according to a group of girls’ basketball players gathered last week at Low’s, a popular pizza shop and convenience store down the street from Bonny Eagle High School.
Megan Morash, a junior from Hollis, said she used to play against Standish sisters Elizabeth and Natalie Bushey, before they all came together on the same high school team.
“We used to hate each other,” Morash said. “Now we’re best friends.”
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: