February 25, 2011

Embden residents file petition to leave school district

EMBDEN — Some residents of this small town are fed up with what they say are disproportionate taxes paid to the school district, and they want to secede.

Embden residents pay about three times more per student than residents of the district's other communities.

A petition calling for withdrawal from School Administrative District 74 -- which also serves Anson, Solon and New Portland -- was submitted to the town office Thursday afternoon with 54 valid signatures, said Town Clerk Bonnie Baker.

The signatures represent 12.4 percent of the 437 votes cast in the last gubernatorial election -- enough to start the legal secession process.

"I'm sick of getting taxed to death," said Joe Creamer, who helped organize the petition.

Taxes paid to the school district have nearly quadrupled in the last 10 years, said Selectman Charles Taylor, from $400,000 to $1,542,000 this year.

The large number of ponds and rivers in Embden have resulted in property values that are higher than those in surrounding towns. With state and local funding based in part on valuation, Embden — which has 16 percent of the district's students — will pay nearly $400,000 more this school year than Anson, which has 52 percent of the students.

"What point in time does the cost outweigh the benefit? It has reached that point. The taxpayers are frustrated," Taylor said.

Superintendent Ken Coville is on vacation this week and could not be reached for comment.

With 119 Embden students in the district — out of 736 students total — taxpayers will contribute nearly $13,000 per student this year.

In comparison, Anson taxpayers will contribute about $2,900 per student this year, at $1,100,700 for 385 students.

New Portland taxpayers will pay about $3,100 per student, at $510,850 for 68 students.

Solon will pay about $4,200 per student, at $685,940 for 164 students.

"I think something's got to be done. I don't think the town of Embden gets a fair shake," said Embden First Selectman Wayne McLaughlin.

"I have not seen the petition; I have not heard of any petition, but I can certainly understand their position," said Andrew Davis, the SAD 74 board chairman from Solon.

The petition may not result in any structural changes, however, if the school district decides to change its cost-sharing formula, said Jim Rier, director of finance and operations at the Maine Department of Education.

SAD 74 currently bases its local cost-sharing formula on 45 percent valuation, 55 percent enrollment. The state's cost-sharing formula is based 100 percent on valuation.

"Sometimes when a unit like Embden is threatening to withdraw, that subject will come up about trying to change the cost sharing to help offset some of the perception they have that they're paying more than they should," Rier said.

If Embden does withdraw from the district, it may then consider tuitioning its students there at a lower cost, according to Scott LeHay, the school district's transportation director and an Embden selectman.

Another alternative, joining with another district, might not be the best answer, Taylor said, since nearby districts, Bingham-based SAD 13 and Madison-based SAD 59, rejected administrative consolidation with SAD 74.

Phillips-based SAD 58 and SAD 74 are currently attempting to form an alternative organizational structure. Communities will vote on that plan starting March 5.

It's unclear, however, how much the town would save.

The petition must now be presented to the SAD 74 board, and town officials must schedule a referendum vote for residents to decide whether they want to begin the process of withdrawing.

If a majority of residents want to withdraw, a committee is then formed to negotiate an agreement with SAD 74, which must be approved by the state education commissioner.

Then, a two-thirds majority vote is needed in Embden to approve the withdrawal plan. It is then considered its own unit and could tuition its students to another district, including the one they are in now, Rier said.

However, "no one has to accept those students," Rier said. "I doubt if that would be an issue, but in some places it could be."

If the students are tuitioned successfully, Embden would need to hire and manage a part-time superintendent and possibly other staff to take care of all state and federal reporting requirements, transportation of students and finances.

Embden would also be subject to a consolidation penalty, since the state would view it as nonconforming unit, Rier said.

In the end, he said, it might be slightly less expensive to tuition students, but there likely would not be a dramatic reduction in costs.

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