2015-05-01 / Community

School board reacts to Port petition

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — As expected, because all five of them signed it, Kennebunkport selectmen at their April 24 meeting put a petition through to voters designed to initiate a process for the town to pull out of RSU 21.

Also as expected, at Monday’s school board meeting, they got a drubbing for it.

“I personally throw down the gauntlet to the selectmen of the town of Kennebunkport, the town that I live in,” said school board member Robert Domine, on Monday. “I sit here right now and call for the resignation of all five of them, because they are vastly out of touch with the feelings of the members of their community of all generations. They should be ashamed of themselves and they’re an embarrassment.”

But the critique did not start at the school board meeting. The first bouquets were tossed at the April 24 meeting.

In addition to giving the withdrawal petition a place on the June 9 ballot, Kennebunkport selectmen used that session to set a $40,000 cap on the work of a study committee, should voters approve the question. The June 9 referendum will not ask Kennebunkport voters if they want to secede from RSU 21. That step, if it comes at all, will take place much later in what Town Manager Laurie Smith allowed would be “a long and complicated process.” At this point, voters will only be asked if they are willing to spend up to $40,000 to consider what it would take for Kennebunkport to initiate divorce proceedings from the rest of the RSU.

Smith, who was town manager in Wiscasset when it launched an effort to withdraw from its school district, recommended the $40,000 figure. Wiscasset spent $55,000 on its withdrawal study, she said. However, with a similar report created in Kennebunkport as recently as 2012, and with an even more complete body of work to lean on from Arundel’s 2010 withdrawal effort, any new project will not need to start from scratch.

“Still, I would tell you there is no magic formula in terms of how much one could spend on the withdrawal process,” Smith said.

However, while selectmen supported the $40,000 figure unanimously, the town’s budget board was less sanguine, giving its assent by a vote of 4-3.

“I want people to know I do not support doing this and one way to express that is by not supporting the funding,” said budget board member David James.

“We just did this and it was soundly defeated at that time,” agreed Amy Johnson, another budget board member who also holds one of three Kennebunkport seats on the RSU 21 board of directors.

After the 2012 study was submitted by an eight-member work group, its dour predictions dampened the mood for independence and nearly 70 percent of Kennebunkport voters who turned out ruled against launching into the full withdrawal process.

“I think it’s insulting and a waste of money to go through this again,” Johnson said. “If we did withdraw, we would no longer have a say on our curriculum choices.

“Parents have to realize their children may be contracted to a school they do not want,” she said, noting that, without a middle school or a high school, older students would likely be tuitioned to nearby districts or private schools, in many cases breaking up friendships in place from kindergarten.

“To scatter them like that is really disappointing,” she said. “They would really lose that sense of community.”

Johnson repeated that message at Monday’s school board meeting, this time joined by a chorus of parents, peers and public school advocates.

The big question that hung over the meeting, however, is what happens if Kennebunkport voters do elect to start the process of breaking away from the union, but the $56.5 million building bond on the same ballot is passed by voters district wide.

“If the bond goes through they own it,” interim Superintendent Kevin Crowley said, implying the school board might go forward with the building renovation project, even if Kennebunkport is in the process of walking away from the district.

“They would be on the hook for their share,” he said.

For school board Chairman Maureen King, the hope is that things don’t get to that point.

“I hope we can nip it in the bud here, because I really think we could better spend $40,000 in Kennebunkport fixing some of the potholes, some of them are a foot deep, rather than spending it on a study that, as we’ve heard from people from Arundel, they’ve already studied it (and) it doesn’t make sense to get out,” she said.

“I think what we’ve got here on the part of the selectmen of the town of Kennebunkport is a delaying tactic to keep the inevitable from happening, which is the upgrade of our facilities and the beatification of our school so that future generations of young people will have the same opportunities we all enjoyed growing up,” he said. “They need to cut it out and they need to move ahead and fund our schools and fund our operating budget.”

In the end the final word might have been spoken best by the first person to speak at the two recent public meetings on the topic.

Leo Martin, chairman of Kennebunkport’s budget board, said the towns have been at each other over the fairest division of dollars for the district going all the way back to the 1960s, when the two Kennebunks first joined hands on public education.

“The boards of selectmen over the years, both the ones in Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, were like tribal chiefs down on the banks of the Kennebunk River beating their chests at each other,” he recalled. “You’ve got to not fall into that trap because it will hurt you in the long run.”

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