SACO – Residents are moving forward with a petition calling for Saco’s withdrawal from Regional School Unit 23, making the city the second in southern Maine to try to leave a school district that was formed under a 2007 state law.

The push for withdrawal coincides with Tuesday’s rejection of the $43.6 million budget proposed for RSU 23 for the next school year. Residents in Saco and Dayton rejected the budget, 1,833-878 and 272-168, respectively, while voters in Old Orchard Beach supported it, 879-220.

The school board will meet next week to begin reviewing the budget. It anticipates another vote in early July.

School officials say they are disappointed with the budget’s rejection and maintain that people who oppose the school unit arrangement spread misinformation.

Saco residents who support withdrawal say the budget vote shows that people want to take a closer look at the arrangement, which is about to enter its fourth year.

RSU 23 is a product of the law passed in 2007, which required many Maine communities to merge their school systems and form new districts with the goal of increasing efficiency.

For the year starting July 1, the proposed budget for RSU 23 was about $25,000 less than this year’s budget and would have eliminated 12 positions. Despite the spending decrease, the budget would have added $1.70 to Saco’s property tax rate because of a formula approved by voters in November to make cost sharing more equitable across the district.

The anticipated tax increase prompted Saco city councilors to set aside $30,000 for a withdrawal committee.

There has been talk in Saco of withdrawing from the RSU for more than a year. The effort gained momentum recently when residents began collecting signatures. If they collect at least 757 signatures — equaling 10 percent of Saco’s voter turnout in the last gubernatorial election — a special election will be held to determine whether the city will proceed.

A committee would be formed to negotiate a withdrawal plan with school officials. That plan would have to win approval from the state education commissioner, then be supported by at least 50 percent of the total number of Saco residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election.

Tobee Labbe of Saco said Wednesday that at least 800 signatures have been collected and likely will be submitted to the city clerk this week for validation.

Only one Maine town — Starks in Somerset County — has withdrawn from a school unit.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, said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education.

On Tuesday, voters in Ellsworth, Lamoine and Hancock approved exploring how to withdraw from RSU 24 in Hancock County.

RSU 23 Superintendent Patrick Phillips sees a direct correlation between Tuesday’s rejection of the budget and the withdrawal effort.

“The folks who are arguing against the budget are arguing against the RSU,” he said.

Critics say Saco taxpayers are subsidizing education in Old Orchard Beach, but Phillips said that’s inaccurate.

“The fact is that Saco is getting an increase under the proposed budget, but it is not an increase that is driven by spending in the other two towns in the RSU,” he said. “It’s driven by the fact that Saco was paying a disproportionately small amount of the additional local costs over the past couple years.”

Under the new cost-sharing formula, Saco will pay 55 percent of local costs beyond the essential programs and services determined by the state. Saco has 70 percent of the students and 59 percent of the teachers in the district.

“The misinformation and mean-spiritedness surrounding this vote have done nothing to further the educational opportunities of any child in any classroom in any community of this district,” said Gary Curtis, the school board chairman.

Labbe, the mother of two students in Saco, said Tuesday’s vote shows the budget wasn’t acceptable and “a massive tax increase to one community is not sustainable.” The withdrawal process is about a return to local control, she said.

“The recent vote shows that there is a lot of discontent with the current arrangement in Saco, and it’s not just about taxes,” she said.

On Tuesday, Ron Michaud, former Saco mayor and a current school board member, collected signatures from voters outside the community center. He supports taking a look at withdrawal because Saco decided to join the RSU under the threat of penalties from the state. He said he believes the city would be better off, financially, on its own.

“The reaction (from residents) has been ‘Let’s get out,’” he said. 

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

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