AUGUSTA – Three years have passed since the first regional school units formed in response to Maine’s consolidation law.

While some of the new school districts have worked with little conflict, several others have member communities that are seeking a way out.

Sixteen municipalities have taken the first official step toward withdrawing from regional school units. In many others, residents are circulating petitions to trigger the initial vote or just starting to explore their options.

Critics say they haven’t seen the financial benefits of school consolidation, and they miss having local control over budgets, curriculum decisions and buildings.

Some say that the effort to force consolidation through financial penalties was ill-advised, and that such school units just won’t work, at least in some communities.

“I think the feeling was that the whole concept of an RSU was shoved down our throats, and it didn’t digest well,” said Ray Bates, chairman of the selectmen in Windsor, which is starting to explore leaving the eight-town Regional School Unit 12. “Now that we’ve seen it in action for a while, we’re even less thrilled with it.”

The municipalities that have approved petitions to withdraw from their school units — one of the first steps in a long and complicated process — are spread across the state, from Arundel in York County to Ludlow in Aroostook County.

Ellsworth-based RSU 24 could lose three of its 12 municipalities, and Belfast-based RSU 20 could lose six of nine, according to the Maine Department of Education and published reports.

“Divorces,” as the Maine Department of Education refers to withdrawals in some of its documents, could dismantle the three-municipality RSU 26, where Glenburn and Veazie want to separate from Orono and each other.

Westport Island and Wiscasset voted last week to form committees to negotiate exits from RSU 12.

Leaving a regional school unit starts with a withdrawal petition, which needs voters’ approval on a secret ballot. The petition authorizes forming a negotiating committee and funding it.

Municipal officials and the school unit appoint members of the committee to work out details of the separation, and the resulting agreement goes to the commissioner of education and then to voters at a second referendum.

Municipalities must wait 30 months before gathering signatures for a petition to withdraw. Because the first of those districts started operating on July 1, 2009, many cities and towns became eligible on Jan. 1.

“We’re getting a lot of them now because it’s the three-year mark for all these new ones,” said Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin. “After the initial wave, it will probably start to look a lot more like it always has, which is one or two every year.”

A repeal of the financial penalties for non-compliance with the law also may be contributing. Maine reduced the state subsidies for 59 school districts in the fiscal year that ends June 30, which is also the end of the penalty.

Maine’s school consolidation was intended to provide financial and educational benefits, and superintendents and state officials say it has in many places.

The Department of Education estimated in 2010 that the reduction in the number of school districts had saved $36 million annually for the state and $30 million for taxpayers.

In both Westport Island and Wiscasset, critics complain that they are paying too much of the RSU 12 budget. A proposal to change the district’s cost-sharing formula in a way that would benefit both towns did not receive a school board vote.

Westport Island pays more than twice the district average, and Wiscasset has the second-highest per-pupil cost.

RSU 12 Superintendent Greg Potter said it costs more to educate Wiscasset students than the town pays, and the town would have to spend much more if it were not in the RSU.

Beyond dollars and cents, some communities in regional school units feel they have lost ownership of their schools.

Bates said the Windsor selectmen hated signing over ownership of their town’s school building to RSU 12, but they felt they had no choice because of the consolidation mandate and the financial penalty that backed it up.

“When you have to give up a building to an entity that just exists on paper, it’s kind of like tearing the heart out of town,” Bates said.

Kennebec Journal Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645 or at:

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