2015-09-25 / Front Page

Towns and RSU 21 come together

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer


At a joint meeting of the RSU 21 school board with selectmen from its three member towns — Arundel, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport — held Wednesday, Sept. 16, at Kennebunk Elementary School, Kennebunk School Director Matthew Fadiman, left, makes a point to Arundel Selectman Velma Jones Hayes. Assistant Superintendent Phillip Potenziano, standing, records the thought. (Duke Harrington photo) At a joint meeting of the RSU 21 school board with selectmen from its three member towns — Arundel, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport — held Wednesday, Sept. 16, at Kennebunk Elementary School, Kennebunk School Director Matthew Fadiman, left, makes a point to Arundel Selectman Velma Jones Hayes. Assistant Superintendent Phillip Potenziano, standing, records the thought. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — In a joint session Sept. 16, officials from RSU 21 and its three member towns — Arundel, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport — did something that, by most accounts, has never been tried in the sometimes contentious history of the district: They sat down and talked to each other.

According to Superintendent Katie Hawes, elected officials from the town and the school board have never before met in a public workshop setting.

Even before the RSU was formed in 2009 during a statewide round of school district consolidations, a similar session had only been tried once before, Hawes said, in the days of SAD 71, in a meeting to debate construction of what would become the Middle School of the Kennebunks.


RSU 21 Superintendent Katie Hawes reviews points made and voted on during a joint meeting of the school board with selectmen from the district’s three member towns — Arundel, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport — held Wednesday, Sept. 16, at Kennebunk Elementary School, to discuss collaboration between the various entities. (Duke Harrington photo) RSU 21 Superintendent Katie Hawes reviews points made and voted on during a joint meeting of the school board with selectmen from the district’s three member towns — Arundel, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport — held Wednesday, Sept. 16, at Kennebunk Elementary School, to discuss collaboration between the various entities. (Duke Harrington photo) And, to be certain, the mood since 2009 has been tense. Arundel looked into getting out of the district almost as soon as it got in, only ending the withdrawal process in 2012 by a slim 1,169- 1,044 vote.

This spring, Kennebunkport got in on the act, and, although some three-quarters of the electorate declined to fund a withdrawal study, it was a hot-button topic in town right up to the June vote.

Also proving divisive was a $56.5 million school renovation bond. The borrowing request eventually passed by a healthy margin (4,318-2,640), but was hotly debated in light of ever-escalating school budgets and voter rejection of a larger, $75 million construction bond in January 2014.

“Last spring, things got a little heated,” Hawes said on Monday. “I think my biggest goal for the night was to get people in the same room to have conversations and to build some sort of common cause to work toward, because we all are now committed to being here.

“Overall, I was so pleased with the meeting,” she said. “I was pleased with the turnout. I was pleased with the energy. I was pleased with the forward thinking of the group.”

A post Hawes made to her Twitter feed soon after the joint session ended was perhaps the best evidence of her delight with how the joint session turned out.

“Great meeting tonight with (the) school board and selectmen from all three towns,” she wrote. “Three people have referred to it as the true beginning of the RSU.”

“I think that’s true,” said Velma Jones Hayes, vice chairman of the Arundel Board of Selectmen.

“When Arundel tried to get out of the RSU, there were meetings that really pitted neighbor against neighbor. It was the big item in town for a long, long time. There were sides and it caused a lot of dissension in town.

“But a meeting like this, it brings all the sides together,” Jones Hayes said, interrupting herself to add, “actually, there are not more sides. Everybody is now on the same side. Everybody is now working for the same goals, and I think that is very important.”

However, not everyone agreed with Jones Hayes’ assessment.

“I think the intent was good, but I think the results fell far short of what I anticipated,” Kennebunk Selectman Ed Karytko said.

The concern, he said, was that the meeting broke up without any tangible, immediate action steps.

“Maybe the answer is that there is a process we need to go through to get to where we need to go, but sometimes I’m not really interested in a process, I’m interested in results,” Karytko said.

What stuck in Karytko’s craw was the meeting format, very similar to the planning charrettes held this spring to debate the future of Kennebunk’s Lower Village. As at those meetings, the 30 attendees at the joint RSU/selectmen gathering broke up into small groups to discuss first what the school district and the towns are doing well together, and second, what opportunities exist for improvement.

All ideas for change brainstormed at the different tables were then posted on one wall of the Kennebunk Elementary School cafeteria. That done, each person was given three stickers to paste next to the ideas he or she liked best.

“That’s maybe a way to diffuse people, but I think we could have made more progress,” Karytko said. “Although, that said, I would agree the meeting was a start toward healing some of the divisions, so long as it does not end up being window dressing.”

Meanwhile, some still harbor simmering resentments that may impede efforts to get all oars pulling in one direction.

“It was a good start. I think everyone was there to cooperate and, honestly, put forth what I thought were some very good ideas for ways we can save money. There were some suggestions that were worth following up on,” said Sheila Matthews-Bull, chairman of the Kennebunkport Board of Selectmen. “But it wasn’t a healing meeting for me. The only healing I’ll get is when we pay our fair share.

“I’ll be perfectly frank,” Matthews Bull said, “I still think it’s very unfair for Kennebunkport to pay 42 percent of the budget when we have 14 percent of the kids. That goes without saying.”

That said, renegotiating the terms of the RSU funding agreement was not one of more than 45 ideas for collaboration posted on the cafeteria wall. That’s because even suggesting it would have been pointless, Matthews-Bull says.

“We would have to get cooperation from all three towns, and we’re not going to get that,” she said. “But we are ready to cooperate in many of the other areas, and wherever we can save money, we will.”

One area of savings was found immediately, just in the choice of venue. The school district had initially proposed to hold a “dine and discuss” session as the Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport. However, Kennebunk selectmen, led by Richard Morin, balked at the cost to taxpayers, prompting a move from a catered dining room to an elementary school buffet, served by cafeteria staff.

Of the ideas for change and improvement generated during the two-hour meeting, the one that gained the most support (11 votes) was, “Kids go to closest school.”

Given that a founding principle of RSU 21 was that it would always maintain an elementary school in each town, the popularity of that idea came as “a real surprise” to Hawes, she said.

“It’s not been my experience, that parents want their children to go to anything other than their own community school,” she said.

Certainly, one popular critique of the RSU’s $56.5 million building bond was that it made little sense, to some, to send money upgrading Ken- nebunkport Consolidated School and the Mildred L. Day Elementary School in Arundel when Kennebunk had two schools, one of which, Kennebunk Elementary School, is only 10 years old. The other, Sea Road Elementary School, while older, is in better condition than the two buildings about to be overhauled. And yet, a facilities study prepared in 2010, soon after the RSU formed, advocates closing the Sea Road School as soon as enrollment drops low enough that its students can be absorbed into KES.

Sea Road is still has “about 85 to 100” students more than KES can comfortably absorb, Hawes said. Still, closing the Sea Road School remains on the table.

Updated enrollment projections are due this fall from Portland-based research firm Planning Decisions. Meanwhile a new 13-member facilities study group is scheduled to hold its first meeting Oct. 14. That group will meet on the second Wednesday of every month, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at KES, and could well re-open the Sea Road closure plan.

If and when that happens, results of last week’s joint session could lead to some Kennebunk students going to Consolidated or MLK, instead of trying to pack them all into KES.

“As part of the new plan, we may look at how we can use our existing facilities differently,” Hawes said. “We may look at blurring town lines a little bit.”

Of the remaining ideas proposed at the joint meeting, the top vote-getters included:

 Maintaining open communications between the RSU and selectmen on all items, not just “big issues” (eight votes)

 Sharing public safety services (eight votes)

 Engaging in joint contracts to purchase gas, heating oil, paper products, pavement and other items in bulk (eight votes)

 Conducting joint meetings three or four times per year (seven votes)

 Combining public works department and sharing snow removal and ground work with the schools (four votes)

 Combining health insurance plans (three votes)

 Increase sharing of water, sewer and electric services (three votes)

 “Listening, not just hearing” (threevotes)

 Expanding joint meetings beyond elected officials to the staff level (three votes)

 Sharing social services between the school and the towns (two votes)

 Using a common template for meeting agendas (two votes).

Of all of those suggestions, perhaps the most gratifying to Hawes was support for continued dialogues.

“I was thrilled to see they want to meet again, and perhaps even more often, because this was our first attempt to get together,” she said. “The fact that they’d like to do this at least a couple of times per year was pleasantly surprising.”

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