2016-05-27 / Front Page

Officials oppose RSU 21 departure

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

ARUNDEL — Although they’ve steadfastly refused to offer their collective wisdom on how residents should vote on the issue of withdrawing the town from RSU 21, Arundel selectmen have now weighed in individually, and they are decidedly against the idea.

At a public hearing Monday, four of the five selectmen said they intend to vote against the proposal at a June 14 referendum. And even the lone holdout declined to endorse the idea, preferring instead to stay above the fray, which, since February, has strained neighborly relations across the rural community.

“I’m going to stay neutral until the final vote, and then I will support it whichever way the vote goes,” Selectman Phil Labbe said.

That, initially, was the position of the entire board. Asked by school board member Erin Nadeau to voice their individual thoughts on the subject, board members initially held their tongues, preferring to stick to their official stance, which was to take no stance.

Advised by Town Manager Keith Trefethen that, by law, they must weigh in on any appropriation of funds, the board voted unanimously April 25 to walk a fine line by printing “no recommendation” on the upcoming town meeting warrant. The question before voters will be whether to take up to $45,000 from the town’s undesignated surplus account to fund a study committee, which will hire an independent consultant to weigh the pros and cons of Arundel pulling out of RSU 21, and to then draw up a divorce decree divvying up school assets. That plan would then be put before voters at a later date, probably in November.

At Nadeau’s request for a straw poll, made early on during Monday’s hearing, only Selectman Dan Dubois took the bait.

“I’ve been trying to keep an open mind, to look at both sides, but to me it’s clear,” he said. “From a financial perspective, I don’t think it’s good for the town of Arundel. And I don’t think it’s good for the kids. The resources that are available through the RSU far outweigh what Arundel can do on its own.

“There are times I don’t like what the [school] board does, but that happens,” Dubois said. “But that’s just the way it goes. That’s the democratic process. I am a supporter of RSU 21 and will vote to move forward.”

At that point in the hearing, the remainder of the board circled wagons behind Chairman Jason Nadeau, who pointed to the board’s previous vote against taking sides.

“From a board perspective, we need to stay as neutral as possible and hear as much as possible,” he said. “As a board, we need to represent the whole town.”

However, by the end of the two-hour hearing, Nadeau found he was willing to take a stance, in part because there were so few withdrawal proponents in the audience. But then, turnout was anemic on both sides, with fewer than 25 people bothering to attend – a fact noted by one woman who referenced the citizen’s petition that launched Arundel’s second formal withdrawal drive in the last four years, an effort coming only seven years after the town joined with Kennebunk and Kennebunkport to create RSU 21 in the first place.

“This is the most pathetic display of a public meeting for something so important in our town,” she said. “I’m just really appalled. There should be at least the 200 people who signed that petition sitting here, at least, because they’re the ones who are putting us through this.”

“I really, really, really wanted to hear from the petitioners,” Chairman Nadeau said. “I was hoping to get a little bit more information from them tonight, but I just don’t think the facts are there.”

With no hard numbers on the benefits of an educational divorce put up by supporters of withdrawal, Nadeau said he could not help but side with Jack Reetz, a former school director and current member of the Arundel Budget Board. During a lengthy presentation Reetz predicted it would cost Arundel residents about $2.17 million to go it alone on public education – a spending increase that, at the current mil rate, would add $1,085 to the annual property tax bill on a $200,000 home, he said.

“This isn’t rocket science,” Reetz said. “The magic is in the numbers. You just have to be willing to dig. I am, and I have. And I’m using the same numbers a consultant will charge you $45,000 for.”

“I don’t see how we can possibly argue with Jack Reetz’s numbers. He’s been there for every committee meeting, every budget meeting, every school board meeting,” Nadeau said. “I have to say, it’s a no vote from me on whether to withdraw. I think it’s stupid money spent.”

Meanwhile, Selectman Thomas Danylik joked he was unable to log the kind of budget research put in my Reetz.

“I had to go to law school because I couldn’t do math,” he said.

“But your bills are always right,” budget board chairman Shawn Hayes shot back, generating a burst of laughter from the crowd.

“Well, somebody else does that,” Danylik said, noting that, for him, the deciding number was the town’s education budget in 2007, before it joined RSU 21. At that time, the town was spending more than $6 million per year on public education, he said, as opposed to the expected total tax assessment for the 2016-2017 school year – $4.5 million.

“In this day and age I just can’t believe it’s going to be any cheaper for us to fund a municipal school unit. That just doesn’t make any sense to me. So, I won’t be supporting Article III [on the town meeting warrant],” he said.

Meanwhile, others pointed to results, as opposed to pure dollars and cents, as a reason to maintain the status quo.

“I’m voting no,” Selectman Velma Jones Hayes said. “There’s been no talk about the good the RSU has done. Well, when you take a school [Mildred L. Day Elementary] that was in the bottom 10 percent of the state, and bring it up unto the top 10 percent, that really is some good.”

Trefethen and Town Clerk Simone Boissonneault also came out against withdrawal, as did Hayes and his fellow budget board member John Bell, who rose to strike an almost apocalyptic note.

“The budget board voted against this wild and crazy scheme because it’s going to be horrendously expensive for the town of Arundel,” he said. “It’s that simple. This has taken us on the road to a financial disaster, and there ain’t no getting around it folks. If you vote for this withdrawal, you better start looking for a tax bill that has increased very, very substantially.”

In the end, only two people spoke in favor of funding the withdrawal study committee, and both got shouted down repeatedly, forcing Chairman Nadeau to thump on his microphone each time in an attempt to regain order.

Noel Holmes seemed a bit put out to be placed in the position of speaking on behalf of all petitioners. Holmes said he had “no doubt” in the numbers presented by Reetz. However, he noted “those are the numbers coming from the RSU,” implying that while any consulting firm would use the same public budget figures supplied by the school district, it might be able to glean things from them not readily apparent to withdrawal opponents.

“Compared to other states, like where I’m from, in Bedford, Massachusetts, our spending is not proportionate to our size,” Holmes said. “There, we had a $130 million budget for nine schools and about seven times the amount of students. We have a $43 million budget for a fraction of that.

“We ran our own school before. I think we can do it again,” Holmes said. “But I’m not going to stand here and discuss ‘factual numbers’ with you. I say to you over and over again, this is why we need the study done – that will get us the information we need to answer all of our questions.”

“I don’t see where we can get numbers from any place that’s more reliable than the budget itself,” audience member Sean Garrity said.

Meanwhile, Diane Robbins again railed, as she has at previous meetings, at the crux of the matter, the issue that sparked the current withdrawal effort – school choice. Petitioners were motivated, she said, by the school board’s decisions to end busing for Arundel high school students attending Thornton Academy, and to require that all students following those now in Grade 5 attend the Middle School of the Kennebunks, rather than Thornton Academy Middle School (TAMS), when they reach Grade 6.

Robbins was on the school board the last time Arundel residents mounted a withdrawal effort, in 2012. She faults the RSU administration for lulling her into telling her constituents they’d always have school choice, even after Arundel’s contract with TAMS ends June 30.

“I was lied to, and in turn I ended up lying to the members of my community when they asked me what was going to happen to school choice,” she said. “And that upsets me very much. Whether they did it on purpose or not, it just makes me very cautious.”

“I think everyone uses the best information available at the time,” said Matt Sylvanus, rising from the audience. “I don’t believe there were backroom discussions. I don’t think anyone ‘lied’ to anybody. I think information changed.”

But that, Holmes said, is precisely why the town should spend $45,000 on a new withdrawal study, rather than count on the similar document created in 2012, or current and historical numbers given out by the RSU. An independent third party, one with no dog in the fight, is the best entity to tell everyone where things currently stand, he said.

“They would be the best people to pick apart the numbers, line item by line item on the RSU ledger,” Holmes said.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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