FREEPORT — Although some residents of Regional School Unit 5 want to pause the Freeport-Pownal-Durham school consolidation process for a year, state Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said Monday night that the only legal action the School Board can take is to move forward with an operating budget by July 1.

In a four-hour meeting with residents and RSU board members, Gendron said pressing the pause button would put each community into “significant difficulty” because there would be no school administration recognizable by law to receive state subsidies or federal funding, assess taxes, or hire and pay staff.

But, Gendron said, after the budget is complete, there are a few options the board can consider.

It could reduce the amount of additional money
Pownal sends to Freeport as part of a tuition agreement that pays for debt from the high school expansion project, or it could
revisit the RSU’s debt-sharing formula.

The additional $56,000 premium Pownal pays to Freeport, Gendron said, could be reduced for the current fiscal year as a way to immediately help Pownal taxpayers. 

To alter the debt sharing formula, Gendron said the plan would have to go back to voters. In the meantime, the board would have time to investigate debt-sharing options. 

“The (Department of Education) can provide you with a financial facilitator to help make changes to the plan,” she said. “It is possible for us to provide you with data and resources over the next couple of years.” 

Because Pownal has an increase of 36 percent in taxes due to consolidation, an unusual spike in valuation, and a reduction of carry-forward funds, Gendron has been trying to help offset taxes and reduce the town’s cost. Two weeks ago, she offered Pownal a $190,000 grant to help offset taxes, but the offer was withdrawn when the Legislature’s Education Committee felt it was unfair to other communities.

Still, Gendron said the Department of Education is “committed to working with these towns to mitigate spikes to Pownal” by talking with legislators in an effort to reduce the valuation spike. She said she would talk to legislators about using an upcoming, lower valuation for Pownal this year, instead of the current, increased valuation. Because that has been done before and because of the highly unusual circumstance, Gendron said the adjustment is a possibility.

Superintendent of Schools Shannon Welsh said Pownal’s state valuation was $176 million in 2007 then spiked to $202 million in 2008. It leveled out to $189 million in 2009 and is expected to be $191 million in 2010. 

Rep. Susan Austin, R-Gray, said she would also push legislators to create a pause amendment for the consolidation law. She said she has received many e-mails from Pownal and Freeport residents and will try to help address the concerns. Austin said she expects to discuss an amendment with House Speaker Hannah Pingree this week. 

Dick Spencer, the RSU’s attorney, said when the consolidation law was created, legislators left out a provision to unwind unions on purpose, leaving the consolidated units with no means to operate as individual school districts after July 1.

“If the law is repealed, there is no law to govern the consolidated units,” he said. “Legislators will have to come back and adopt interim laws.”

But Spencer said the plan could be altered to allow the RSU to act as an Alternative Organizational Structure, which would allow for local control of budgets and schools, although the three towns would need voter approval to amend the plan. 

RSU Chairwoman Laurie Poissonnier said the only thing the RSU board will do right away is create a budget. 

“I heard the message loud and clear,” she said. “There is nothing to do but move forward. We can’t push a pause button and the only thing to do is push on.” 

Because of discussions surrounding ways to halt consolidation, the schedule for budget approval has been extended. The board will meet Wednesday, May 27, to review the budget and adopt it on Wednesday, June 3. There will be another regular meeting of the RSU board on June 10, then an annual budget meeting for the three towns on Tuesday, June 16, at Freeport High School at 6 p.m.

The budget validation referendum is now scheduled for June 25, instead of June 9.

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or [email protected].

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