August 30, 2013

State OKs Saco plan for quitting RSU 23

The conditional approval requires small changes to the agreement and two public hearings.

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Maine Department of Education on Thursday granted conditional approval of Saco's plan to withdraw from Regional School Unit 23, paving the way for a November referendum.

A four-member committee spent much of the past year developing the plan for splitting off from the regional school unit that also includes Dayton and Old Orchard Beach.

The plan continues to draw criticism, including from Saco's mayor.

However, as long as final changes to the agreement are made and two public hearings are held on schedule, voters will decide whether or not to leave the school district in a Nov. 5 referendum, according to state education officials.

Dayton, which also is pursuing withdrawal, also was granted conditional approval for its withdrawal agreement this week, said Jim Rier, deputy commissioner of the Department of Education.

Vangel Cotsis, a member of the Saco Withdrawal Committee, called the state decision a very positive step forward. "In particular, it makes it highly likely, if not a sure thing, that the question of withdrawal will get on the ballot on Nov. 5," he said.

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

A public hearing on the plan will be held at 7 p.m. Sept. 18 at Saco City Hall. A second public hearing will be held before November.

The state's conditional approval will become official after the Saco Withdrawal Committee and RSU 23 board vote on small changes to the agreement, such as a provision that a local school board be elected within 90 days of approval of the plan. Cotsis said those votes are formalities and he doesn't anticipate any further changes to the agreement.

While state officials have indicated they approve of the Saco plan, others including the city's mayor have expressed concerns about the $100 million Thornton Academy contract and what education in Saco would look like if the withdrawal is approved.

Eric Drown, a parent and member of CARE 23, a citizen watchdog group, said he was not surprised the withdrawal agreement received conditional approval, but remains concerned about the Thornton Academy contract. He said the new contract eliminates a requirement that the school provide annual reports on student performance to city officials, though he doesn't doubt Thornton's commitment to Saco students.

"Our biggest concern is we haven't yet seen any vision of the future of Saco education that clearly demonstrates that the new school system would provide a better quality of education," he said.

In a letter to residents, Mayor Mark Johnston outlined his concerns about the Thornton Academy contract and questioned why it was signed by the city administrator at the direction of the Saco Withdrawal Committee without input from elected officials.

"For the first time in my memory, a legally binding contract with Thornton Academy was negotiated and signed without any input, guidance, participation or oversight by school board members or any elected officials," he wrote.

Rier said the Department of Education's review of the contract was only to ensure that it provided "absolute assurance" students would have a high school to attend.

"In the end, it was not the Department of Education's or commissioner's role to scrutinize how the plan was created," he said.

 

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

ggraham@mainetoday.com

 

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