Staff Writer

SACO – Saco residents will vote in a special election July 31 to determine whether the city will proceed with withdrawing from Regional School Unit 23.

Voters will be asked if they want to spend $30,000 to form a committee to develop a plan to withdraw from the school unit that covers Saco, Dayton and Old Orchard Beach. The referendum will be held at the same time as the second vote on the RSU 23 budget for 2012-13.

Voters in Saco and Dayton rejected the $43.6 million budget earlier this month.

The new budget proposed by the school board totals $43.5 million, a decrease of more than $116,000 from the current budget.

A regional budget meeting will be held at 6 p.m. July 11 at Old Orchard Beach High School to finalize the budget total to be sent to voters.

Talk of Saco’s withdrawal from the three-year-old school district intensified last year when residents faced a tax increase from the proposed school budget.

Residents who support withdrawal are concerned about the cost to stay in the district and a loss of local control. They say Saco is subsidizing education in Old Orchard Beach, but school officials say that’s inaccurate.

The effort to withdraw gained momentum this month as residents collected 1,160 signatures to schedule the referendum.

They needed at least 757 signatures — 10 percent of Saco’s voter turnout in the last gubernatorial election — to move forward with the special election.

With voters’ approval, a committee would be formed to negotiate a withdrawal plan with school officials. That plan would need approval from the state education commissioner, then support from at least 50 percent of the total number of Saco residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election.

Only one Maine town — Starks in Somerset County — has withdrawn from a school unit. Arundel in York County, Frankfort in Waldo County, Glenburn and Veazie in Penobscot County and Ludlow and Portage Lake in Aroostook County have approved moving forward with the withdrawal process, according to the Maine Department of Education.

Residents of Ellsworth, Lamoine and Hancock decided earlier this month to explore how to withdraw from RSU 24 in Hancock County.

Jeff Christenbury of the new political action committee Citizens for Saco Education said members will spend the next month informing people about why they want to withdraw from RSU 23. The group has about 50 people on its mailing list and a core of 10 members who meet regularly.

Gary Curtis, chairman of the school board, said he believes the push for withdrawal is “shortsighted” and the city will not be better off financially on its own.

He said the cost-sharing formula approved by voters last year is responsible for increased school costs for Saco residents.

“It’s a little late to being saying (the formula) is not fair,” Curtis said.

He said RSU 23 is one of the most fiscally responsible school districts in York County. It will distribute a flier of financial information to combat “misinformation” about school costs being circulated by proponents of withdrawal, he said.

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

[email protected]