Andover residents weigh in on SAD 44 school withdrawal
If you don’t vote ‘yes’ Sept. 18, you don’t get to know whether or not Andover could stand on its own as a school system.
That argument by Steve Hudspeth was a common theme at a public hearing Tuesday night, held in anticipation of a Sept. 18 vote on approving $24,000 to create an educational/financial plan for the town that could lead to withdrawal from SAD 44.
About 75 people turned out for the hearing.
As the town committee that has been gathering information on future options for educating Andover children has described, establishing a separate school district requires two town votes: the first one (Sept. 18) would direct a new town-appointed committee to undertake negotiations with SAD 44 to determine the actual terms on which Andover’s withdrawal from SAD 44 could be accomplished. Once the negotiations satisfy the committee, SAD 44, and the Maine Department of Education, a second town vote would approve or reject that separation.
A two-thirds approval vote by residents would be required to actually withdraw.
Hudspeth, a lawyer who is a seasonal resident of Andover, said at the hearing he could advise a withdrawal committee on negotiating terms with SAD 44.
The negotiations would address an agreement to settle the town’s share of debt service in SAD 44, balanced against its share of assets in the school district, and the return of the school building to the town.
Hudspeth said while the town should also hire an expert consultant to finalize the committee’s work, he could likely save Andover money in the process.
Mark Shraiberg, a member of the current study committee as well as a SAD 44 director, said if voters approve entering the formal withdrawal study process, the new committee would aim to have negotiations with SAD 44 completed by the beginning of 2013, in preparation for a final vote on the plan they create.
The current committee presented a draft budget for the second year of an independent Andover school system, with estimated expenses of $935,345.
But the budget for the first year after a potential withdrawal would likely be higher, members said, because of unique first-year costs incurred.
In addition, noted former SAD 44 school director Sid Pew, there could be a one or two-year delay before the town would be eligible for state aid.
In the meantime, Andover would likely have to float a bond to pay the initial expenses, said Selectman Keith Farrington. Estimates ranged between $500,000 and $1 million, depending on the credit the town might get for its assets in the district.
As for the second year, committee member Paula Lee said Andover would need to raise $593,491 locally to be eligible for a state aid amount of $288,000. For this year’s SAD 44 budget, Andover’s total share is $668,000, she said.
She emphasized that many numbers in the committee’s budget are rough, with some components missing.
The draft budget also assumes an expense of $378,500 to tuition the town’s projected 48 students (adjusted for population) in grades 6-12 to neighboring schools, such as RSU 10 and SAD 44. The cost per pupil was estimated at $8,700 for high school and $7,000 for middle school.
Pew questioned the accuracy of the estimate of the student numbers. He said Andover currently sends 10 to 12 students to RSU 10 under superintendent agreements between districts, but with withdrawal those students would have to be added to the tuition costs.
He also worried that if a family with a special education student needing out-of-district placement moved to town, that cost could add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the budget.
But Lee said Andover would qualify for federal aid for all special education students.
Hudspeth raised a financial concern for staying in SAD 44: if an anticipated $1.5 million in improvements to the Telstar complex are completed, Andover would be obligated for its share – another reason to do the withdrawal study now. “It’s now or never,” he said.
Dick Merrill also said if Newry, which pays a portion of the school district costs disproportionate to its student population, decided to withdraw from SAD 44, costs would be passed on to the other towns.
Committee members also expressed concern about the current uncertainty of negotiating with SAD 44 each year an amount to keep the K-5 Andover Elementary School open.
This year, the town will pay an extra $68,000 to the district in order to keep open a building SAD 44 could otherwise vote to close.
Others said the uncertainty each year was stressful for the teaching staff at the school.
Jarrod Dumas said his wife, a teacher at AES, was currently preparing for the upcoming school year “with one-third of the teaching staff not yet hired.”
He said he was confident if a separate Andover School Board were running the school, “there would be a full staff in the school.”
Some residents argued that what might seem like very expensive costs – such as replacing the old furnace at AES – might be significantly reduced by creatively tapping the talents of citizens.
Selectman Susan Merrow addressed the subject of negotiations for both the yearly figure to keep the school open, as well as a potential withdrawal settlement.
She said the Department of Education has said it is not out of the question for a town to be able to negotiate a multi-year agreement to keep a school open.
As for negotiating a withdrawal agreement, “we need to be tough negotiators,” noting that in past decades Andover had paid a large portion of the school budget.
“We were a top payer. We paid a lot into it, and we need to make sure that we’re getting the assets we deserve,” she said.
Shraiberg said in most other towns that have negotiated a withdrawal, their school has been given back to them by the district.
Hudspeth said regardless of how much of the $24,000 might be spent if it is approved, it would be a good investment to find out exactly what the town’s educational options and costs might be.
“Whatever the outcome is, we will say we made a wise decision Sept. 18 to spend $24,000 to find out,” he said to applause.
The polling hours for Sept. 18 will be noon to 8 p.m. at the Town Hall.