FRYE ISLAND — By definition, island communities live with a measure of isolation from their neighbors. But in the case of Frye Island, more than the waters of Sebago Lake separate the islanders from the mainland members of School Administrative District 6.
The longstanding debate about Frye Island’s future in the school district, which dates back decades, has once again found its way into the court system.
In October, Frye Island voters approved a referendum to initiate the school district withdrawal process available to towns in Maine law. However, Frye Island is the only town in Maine specifically prevented by state statute from leaving its school district, and SAD 6 has asked the Cumberland County Superior Court to deem the island’s withdrawal effort unlawful.
Frye Island — a seasonal community of more than 500 homes and less than 200 registered voters with no students currently in the school district — contributed more than $1.5 million to the school district in the 2017-2018 school year. Island officials generally view the current funding situation as unsustainable and unfair.
“It has always been the intention of Frye Island to support education in Maine in a manner that’s fair,” Town Manager Braun said at a Frye Island public meeting in February. “Nobody wants to shirk our responsibility, but we want to discharge it in a way that’s fair and consistent with the rights that every town in Maine has.”
SAD 6 is one of only two in Maine exempted from the statewide school cost-sharing formula where each municipality pays based on student enrollment. SAD 6 towns continue to pay based on property values rather than student population.
SAD 6, which also includes the towns of Buxton, Hollis, Limington, and Standish, has one of the highest total student enrollments of any district in the state with more than 3,500 students in the 2016-2017 school year.
Many school and local officials from the other towns see Frye Island’s contribution to the district as a continuation of the deal reached in the late 1990s when Frye Island seceded from the Town of Standish and became its own municipality.
Lester Harmon, Chairman of the SAD 6 Board of Directors, said he and the district feel that Frye Island is “paying their fair share.”
“It would hurt our students, is the bottom line,” Harmon said about the prospect of Frye Island leaving the district.
The school board responded to Frye Island’s move to initiate the withdrawal process by voting on Jan. 2 to file a complaint which asks the court to declare “that Frye Island’s actions to withdraw are unlawful and that the School Board is not obligated to participate in the withdrawal process.”
“This case arises out of unlawful actions taken by the inhabitants of the Town of Frye Island to initiate a process to withdraw from Maine School Administrative District 6, despite a private and special law that expressly prohibits Frye Island from so doing,” reads the complaint filed Jan. 5 by school district attorneys from Portland-based form Drummond Woodsum.
James Moses, Frye Island’s lone representative on the SAD 6 school board, was the only board member to oppose the motion to take action in court.
Frye Island then filed a counter-claim with the court on Feb. 9 asserting that the school district’s position is “erroneous” on multiple counts.
The first of those counts in the island’s counter-claim, submitted by town lawyers from Portland firm Pierce Atwood, argues that the prohibition of Frye Island’s withdrawal, which was passed by the legislature in 2001 as an amendment to the 1998 bill that allowed the island to secede from Standish, was essentially repealed by Frye Island’s charter.
In February, Frye Island signed off on an education-related change to its charter asserting a repeal of the secession law “under the authority granted to Frye Island by the Maine Constitution and the general laws of Maine.”
The island’s second argument in the counter-complaint is that its inability to withdraw was implicitly repealed in 2009 when the legislature passed a law establishing a process for municipalities to withdraw from a school district. Third, the island argues that the secession law is unconstitutional in relation to both the Maine and U.S. Constitutions.
The Maine Department of Education has indicated that it will let the court process play out before acting further on Frye Island’s effort initiate the withdrawal process. The department began the initial steps of the process in December while noting that Frye Island might not have the authority to withdraw but later pumped the brakes once the issue went to court.
“As a result of the court filing, it is the opinion of the department that as the authority to proceed with the withdrawal is now before a court, the Department no longer has jurisdiction in the matter and therefore, will await the court’s determination as to whether the withdrawal in question is lawful,” said Department of Education Commissioner Robert Hassan in a Jan. 17 letter.
In the meantime, Frye Island has reached out the RSU 14 School Board to see if the Windham-Raymond school district would be interested in including the island should it be allowed to leave SAD 6.
Braun told the RSU 14 board that the island “did want to have a viable alternative approach to supporting education should we be allowed to withdraw from SAD 6” and felt that there are more “geographic synergies between RSU 14 and Frye Island.”
Braun said that even if the island, which suspends ferry service and shuts down during the winter, were to somehow have full-time residents with children in the school system, sending them to SAD 6 would be “very close to a physical impossibility.” Frye Island is accessed by ferry from Raymond — on the opposite side of Sebago Lake from the SAD 6 towns.
RSU 14 officials took no official action at the meeting last week. Assistant Superintendent Donn Davis suggested that board members discuss the issue further and that RSU 14 and Frye Island keep in touch regarding the pending litigation.
Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.
The ferry from Raymond to Frye Island shuts down during the winter.
Frye Island Town Manager Bill Braun speaks to members of the RSU 14 School Board on Feb. 28.