SACO — The Saco City Council voted Monday night to hold a special election to determine if the city will proceed with withdrawing from Regional School Unit 23.

Voters on July 31 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 includes Saco, Dayton and Old Orchard Beach.

The vote will be held at the same time as the second RSU 23 budget vote. Voters in Saco and Dayton earlier this month rejected the $43.6 million budget supported by residents who participated in a regional budget meeting in May. During that meeting, residents added $91,000 to the school board supported budget.

The second school budget approved by the board is $43.5 million, a decrease of more than $116,000 from the current budget. It is the same budget approved by the school board before residents voted to add money.

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

There has been talk in Saco of withdrawing from the RSU for more than a year, but opposition intensified when Saco residents were faced with a tax increase from the proposed school budget.
Residents who support withdrawal are concerned about the cost to stay in the unit and maintaining local control. They say Saco is subsidizing education in Old Orchard Beach, a charge school officials say is inaccurate.

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

Withdrawal proponents needed to collect at least 757 signatures — equaling 10 percent of Saco’s voter turnout in the last gubernatorial election – to move forward with the special election to determine whether the city will proceed.

If approved by voters, 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.

Only one Maine town — Starks in Somerset County — has withdrawn from a school unit.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 earlier this month approved exploring how to withdraw from RSU 24 in Hancock County.

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

Gary Curtis, chairman of the RSU board, said he believes the push for withdrawal is “short sighted” and the city will not be better of financially on its own. The increase in costs Saco residents are responsible for is attributed to the new cost sharing formula approved last year by voters, he said.
“It’s a little late to being saying (the formula) is not fair,” Curtis said.

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