NEWRY — “We are going to go ahead with the withdrawal process,” Jim Sysko, chairman of Newry’s Withdrawal Committee, told about 40 people at Tuesday’s public hearing. They were discussing a Nov. 8 referendum on changing the SAD 44 formula for determining how education costs are shared among member towns.
The question that will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot asks residents if they favor changing the method of sharing costs among the municipalities. The current method is based solely on the respective property valuation of each town; the new SAD 44 formula also takes into account pupil count.
Some have viewed a change to the funding formula as a possible way to keep Newry from voting to leave the school district and taking its large share of the SAD 44 budget with it.
The withdrawal process, intended to produce an agreement between SAD 44 and Newry for Newry residents to vote upon, is currently in a stalemate because negotiations on the agreement have stalled.
“It will be for the town of Newry’s voters to decide whether to continue our process after this vote in November,” Sysko said. “We do have ideas on how we can keep it going, even though we’ve been stalled. So when you’re voting on this, you’ve got to realize that Newry still has the potential to withdraw, and that would be a big shock to the system.”
SAD 44 officials have said Newry would likely have to take the district to court to try to continue the withdrawal process.
The hearing was facilitated by the district’s attorney, Bill Stockmeyer, who gave an overview of the new proposal.
The proposed change would implement a formula based 90 percent on valuation and ten percent on pupil count for the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years, and 85 percent on valuation/15 percent on pupil count for FY 2020 and all fiscal years thereafter.
The formula would be applied to both the portion of the budget raised for essential programs and services (the minimum amount required to be raised in order for the district to qualify for a state education subsidy) and the additional local share (the additional amount raised at the discretion of district voters).
The new proposal shifts $402,638 in annual education costs from Newry to the other district towns. Basing its figures on the 2016 budget, which totaled approximately $10.6 million, the committee that was appointed to study a possible change to the cost-sharing formula opted to bring the shifted proposal to voters.
In the first two years under the new formula, Newry would pay $268,425 less than its current payment of $3,018,194 toward the approximately $8.1 million of the district’s budget that is raised locally.
Bethel would pay $173,737 more than its current share of $2,888,029; Greenwood, $4,472 more than its current $1,049,493; and Woodstock, $90,216 more than its current $1,179,618.
Beginning in FY 2020, Bethel would pay $260,605 more than currently, Greenwood would pay $6,709 more, and Woodstock would pay $135,324 more.
A simple majority of district voters is needed to approve the formula change.
Jake Clockedile, committee’s facilitator and independent consultant, suggested the proposal after hearing from committee members at their first meeting. Newry Selectman Jim Largess, a member of the cost-sharing committee that crafted the new formula plan, said he thinks the proposed change is fair.
“Nobody’s asking for us to not pay our fair share,” said Largess. He said providing a good education to the district’s children is of primary importance.
He added that the increased cost to the other district towns “is not a lot of money for each individual taxpayer.”
However, Woodstock School Board member Marcel Polak said he believes that the current valuation-based system is fair, and is concerned that a permanent tax increase in three of the district’s towns will make voters less open to approving necessary budget increases in future years.
Polak also said that 84 percent, or about $338,000 of the amount of tax to be shifted from Newry to the other towns is paid by second homeowners. Six percent is paid by Sunday River, he said, while only 10 percent, or about $40,000, is paid by year-round Newry residents.
Stockmeyer told the audience that approval of the cost shift would not legally put an end to the ongoing efforts by some Newry residents to withdraw, “but there was a feeling that if people were satisfied [with the funding shift], the process might stop of its own accord.”
Sysko pointed to property tax assessments in Newry that are higher than those for similar properties in the district’s other towns as evidence of the unfairness of the existing system.
Bethel school director Roberta Taylor countered, “If I lived in Newry, my property would be worth more, so I’d pay more taxes, but if I sell that property, I’d sell it for more. So I don’t understand where it comes from that because I live in Newry, I shouldn’t be paying higher taxes.”
“Newry has been contributing the lion’s share for quite a few years,” said Greenwood director Larry Merlino.
“They have the fewest votes on the school committee, and they contribute the most money, and I think that is a very big consideration. I feel that they should have more representation.”
But Steve Wight, a resident of Newry, disagreed.
“I don’t know of any democracy that bases the amount of votes you can have on the amount of money you have,” Wight said.
“I don’t think it works that way.”
Woodstock Selectman Steve Bies said he was opposed to the tax shift proposal.
“In any community, it’s fairly natural that there are pockets of greater affluence and lesser pupil count,” said Bies, citing the example of a community with a large population of retirees.
“My son was not educated here. I have no relatives that were ever educated here, but it is my duty, I feel, as a citizen, to contribute in the same way that everybody else does.”
The hearing was adjourned after about an hour of discussion.