2015-04-24 / Front Page

Port petitions to pull out of RSU 21

June town meeting to include referendum on withdrawal
By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNKPORT — A long Patriot’s Day weekend was all it took for a group of Kennebunkport residents to start the process of pulling out from RSU 21.

That, and eight more signatures.

On Friday, April 17, Kristi Bryant turned in a withdrawal petition at town hall, but Town Clerk April Dufoe spotted just enough names belonging to nonresidents of the seaside village to frustrate the initial submission. With 208 signatures needed — equal to 10 percent of the number of voters who cast ballots in the 2014 gubernatorial election — Bryant had just 200 valid names.

With a Monday holiday and selectmen scheduled to sign the annual town meeting warrant at their session on Thursday, Tuesday was about the last chance petitioners had to get their signatures certified in time to make the June vote. Otherwise, Dufoe said, the question would have to wait until the general election in November.

But bright and early Tuesday morning — figuratively speaking anyway, as it was, in fact, pouring rain — Bryant turned in 15 more names, just to be on the safe side, and the die was cast.

Kennebunkport voters will get the chance to weigh in on withdrawal from the school district. By June, voters across the river will know if they, too, can expect a withdrawal vote.

Kennebunk resident Edward Karytko said Monday he is “about halfway done” collecting the 602 signatures he’ll need to force a similar vote in his town.

“I’ve been collecting signatures here and there a few at a time, but now that Kennebunkport has their signatures done, I think it’s time we kick it into high gear and get ours in as quickly as possible,” Karytko said. “I definitely want to get them in before June, because knowing that we have gotten signatures in to begin a study on a withdrawal may give people a little more information relative to making a decision on how they vote on various items, like the building project and the school budget.”

A $56.5 million bond vote in all three RSU 21 this June is reportedly at the heart of the withdrawal efforts in both of the Kennebunks, as well as in Arundel.

In 2012, Arundel residents narrowly rejected a withdrawal bid by a vote of 1,196 to 1,044. Now, the air is rife there with talk of a renewed effort, although a new petition has yet to materialize at town hall.

Of course, an initial petition presented in any of the three RSU 21 towns only compels selectmen there to start the ball rolling on a 22-step process for bailing out of a regional school unit. Arundel’s 2012 decision brought a halt to proceedings at Step 18.

As happened in Arundel when it last launched a school succession effort, the June vote in Kennebunkport will ask if voters approve of selectmen appropriating a set sum of money to fund the work of a four-person withdrawal committee.

At their April 23 meeting, Kennebunkport selectmen had to decide on the appropriate sum, the exact dollar amount of which must be included in the warrant article. That vote took place after the deadline for this week’s Post, but it was a cinch selectmen would come up with something and put the question to town meeting, given that all five members signed the petition.

“Oh, I absolutely signed it,” said Chairman Allen Daggett on Monday. “I’m in favor of getting out of the RSU.”

The case for withdrawal

Daggett stressed this view was his alone, and he was speaking as an individual, not a representative of the board of selectmen. His only official comment as a board member was, “It’s up to the town to vote however they want to vote; it’s our responsibility to give them the facts and everything they need to make that decision.”

That view was backed by Selectman Patrick Briggs,

“I think it is the responsibility of a selectman to respond to the interests of a number of people, and quite a few people in town who are saying how the school board is progressing has caused them quite a bit of concern,” he said. “By signing the petition, I’m responding to that interest, which simply allows the debate to go forward.

“This is just the first step in a process,” Briggs said. “People have to understand, this is not like throwing a grenade over the palace wall. This is a process and the process will play out and then we’ll do what the people want to do.”

In Kennebunk, Karytko voiced a similar sentiment.

“I honestly don’t know if withdrawing from the RSU is good, bad, or indifferent,” he said. “Unfortunately, the only way you can find that out is by going through the withdrawal process. All of the information has to be put on the table and once we see the information, we can make an accurate and justified decision.”

However, while he merely wants to study the pros and cons of withdrawing from RSU 21, Karytko said his mind is made up on the building bond.

“I’m totally against it and I will do everything I can to knock it down,” he said. “There’s no question the schools need repair. My problem is, if we are a school district, we should be making financial decisions based on us being one district.”

The bond would pump $8.6 million into repairs at the Mildred L. Day Elementary School in Arundel, $5.1 million into Kennebunkport’s Consolidated Elementary School, and the balance, $42.8 million, into overhauling Kennebunk High School. The decision of which schools to fix is based in large part on the 2009 agreement that created RSU 21 by appending Arundel to the former SAD 71. That contract calls on the RSU to maintain an elementary school in each town, unless municipal voters OK a closure.

With that in mind, and with Kennebunk Elementary School being the newest building in the district, the school board has discussed closing Kennebunk’s Sea Road Elementary School.

“Well, that’s an absolutely ludicrous thing to do,” Karytko said. “Sea Road is in the best condition between it, (Mildred L. Day School in) Arundel and Consolidated, and it was built to be expandable. Yet we’re talking about closing it down and putting nearly $15 million into these other two schools.

“That’s what’s nuts about this. As a Kennebunk taxpayer I’m here wondering, why am I giving money to Kennebunkport and Arundel when we have plenty of room at Sea Road to accommodate one of those lesser condition schools closing. It doesn’t make sense.

“The reason we are doing that is that we do not act like one school district,” Karytko said. “We’re three separate towns all fighting for what we want. And we each want a school in our town.”

Sure enough, Daggett says he wants to keep Consolidated open, even if it means closing a better school building in Kennebunk.

“Without a school in your town, you really don’t have a town,” he said.

Daggett’s problem with the bond proposal, he says, is that it does not do enough to fix Consolidated, despite Kennebunkport taxpayers hefting nearly half the bill.

“I’m kind of upset that it’s a $56.5 million bond, but Consolidated School out of that is getting just $5 million. It needs a lot more work than that.”

In fact, a $75 million bond to repair the same three schools, rejected by voters in January 2014, had earmarked $10 million for the Consolidated school.

“But meanwhile, of this bond, if it passes, we’re going to be responsible for 41.5 percent of it here in Kennebunkport. That’s just so unfair,” Daggett said.

Part of Daggett’s beef is that while the annual school budget is divvied up for the most part based on property values in the three district towns, representation on the school board is based on population. Therefore, while Kennebunkport taxpayers cover more than 40 percent of the RSU 21 budget, they have the same representation on the school board as Arundel, at three members, and half as many as Kennebunk.

“We’re always outvoted no matter how you look at it,” Daggett said. “I think if we could get our little school back, we could put a lot more money into it on our own, because families here would be behind it as a community school and then I think we’d have one hell of a nice school.”

Daggett’s fellow selectman, Edward Hutchins, holds a similar view.

“The condition of Consolidated is deplorable,” he said. “Sooner or later we’ll have to put out a bond to fix it and, if we had a more equitable split, I’d be the first person to go and vote for this one. But I have a duty as a selectman to protect the taxpayers of the town of Kennebunkport. For us to pay some $20 million of the bond and only get $4 million, that’s a terrible rate of return.

“That’s why I have a hard time with the RSU, because we’re not treated fairly,” Hutchins said. “We have 13 percent of the enrollment, but we pay more than 40 percent of any bonds. Certainly, there are people here in Kennebunkport with a lot of money, there’s no doubt about that, but to say property values are an indication of wealth, that’s not entirely true.”

Far from that being the case, Hutchins said, many longstanding Kennebunkport families are slowly being taxed out of their homes, in part because tuition costs for local students are $5,000 more per year than for kids in Kennebunk, and almost triple the cost to residents of Arundel.

“I don’t want anyone to think this is about money,” Hutchins said. “We’re not trying to cheap out on our kids. Our children are the most important thing in our community. But it really bothers me that there aren’t as many children here as there were when I was growing up, and the cost of buying and maintaining a home in Kennebunkport, which includes the tax bill, is absolutely why. Working class families can’t afford it.

“If we’re going to spend $19,000 per student, as our own school department we’d get every dime of that education, whereas right now most of it is going to educate kids from the other two communities,” Hutchins said.

That, says Bryant, is the crux of the issue. Bryant was a member of the Kennebunkport Board of Selectmen from 2006 to 2009, during the time when Gov. John Baldacci launched his school consolidation initiative, resulting in the formation of RSU 21. However, she says her town has suffered under Maine’s school funding formula for a lot longer than that.

“We have been overtaxed and underrepresented in Kennebunkport for a long time,” she said. “It’s always been an unfair situation here and it’s only getting worse. The other towns are always willing to take Kennebunkport’s money, but not give us a say at the table.”

With two children in the district, Bryant says she’s nonetheless immune to what-about-the-children arguments.

“People always say at any vote, if you are against this then you don’t love your children, but I don’t see it that way,” she said. “I think this (withdrawal) would better serve our own students.”

As a long-range possibility, Bryant says, she’d like to see a new K-8 school built behind Consolidated on land the town bought back when she was on the board of selectmen. The town could then tuition high school students out to any number of public or private schools in the area.

However, Bryant acknowledges the building bond is the big monkey wrench in the works. Nobody is quite sure what will happen if voters in Kennebunkport agree to launch the withdrawal study, while voters district wide approve the bond. The closest correlation comes from RSU 5, where the school board put an approved building project on hold until after Freeport went through the 22-step withdrawal process, ultimately rejecting secession last year.

“I have to believe that’s what will happen here,” Karytko said. “If the bond issue passes, I would not want to be the school board member who voted to stick it to the Port and say, no, withdrawal or not, we’re going to go ahead with this project and you’re going to be on the hook. That, to me, would be totally immoral and totally unethical. It would just blow my mind if they would have the nerve to do that.”

What school board members might consider doing remains unknown. Only one person on the 12-member board responded to a request for comment emailed on Monday.

For Kennebunkport residents, the final decision on taking the first step toward withdrawing from RSU 21 will come in June. Until then, there’s certain to be plenty of debate in all three district towns, both at public meetings and over backyard fences.

“If nothing else, I hope this opens a dialogue,” Hutchins said. “I hope the people that run the school will realize we really don’t feel like we are being treated fairly.”

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