Frye Island looks to Augusta for more school aid

From left, Gary Donohue, James Moses and Jake Stoddard listen at a meeting of the Frye Island Board of Selectmen and the School Administrative District 6 Board of Directors. The meeting aimed to create a dialogue between members of both communities regarding Frye Island's contribution to the school district budget. 

Frye Island selectman and the School Administrative District 6 directors plan to petition the Legislature for money to offset a portion of Frye Island’s contribution to the school district.

The decision was the result of a three-hour meeting Saturday, when representatives of the island town and the district, which also includes Standish, Buxton, Limington and Hollis, convened to “share concerns and ask questions” as directed by Jim Moses, Frye Island’s representative to the school board and the meeting facilitator.

Frye Island is a residential community of 524 on a Sebago Lake island. The community is open seasonally – from May through October – and although last fiscal year residents contributed roughly $1.5 million of the $23 million provided by the district’s towns to the school budget, no Frye Island children attend district schools.

SAD 6 also received $21 million from the state, bringing the total budget for the 2016 fiscal year to roughly $46 million, according to the district website.

Betsy Gleysteen, Frye Island selectwoman, said the town does not want to hurt the school district, “but it’s clear we’ve come here for tax relief,” she said.

According to Frye Island Town Manager Gary Donohue, the property tax rate on Frye Island for 2015 was $22.85 per $1,000 of valuation.

Property taxes on the island have increased dramatically since the town seceded from Standish in 1999, according to Donohue.

If costs continue to increase, he said, residents, many of them retirees on fixed incomes, will be forced to sell their Frye Island property.

“We’re not just looking to balance our budget on the backs of the school,” Gleysteen said. “Our goal is to be sustainable long-term,” she said, adding the town is looking at additional ways to better balance their budget.

Donohue mentioned altering the cost-sharing formula so Frye Island residents would pay 50 percent based on their property valuation, and 50 percent based on the student population, effectively cutting the town’s contribution in half.

Rebecca Bowley of Hollis, who chairs the SAD 6 board, said the district would not agree to the split, but suggested the board and Frye Island selectmen work together to “write special legislation to have the state pick up a piece of the school funding.” That way, Frye Island would get tax relief without the district losing money.

Later in the meeting, Donohue endorsed the idea, saying “it would be a win-win for Frye Island and the district if we petition the Legislature. Unity in numbers is going to do a great deal.”

The only school board member to outwardly oppose the idea was Vice Chairman Jake Stoddard of Buxton.

“I think we need to take this problem and own it,” Stoddard said. “If we send it to Augusta, we lose all control of the situation and may end up with something we don’t like.”

Lynn Olson, who chairs the Standish Board of Selectmen, said she would support the measure, conditionally.

If Frye Island leaves the district, Olson said, the rest of the towns will be forced to pay more to the school district, and the burden would fall more heavily on Standish.

“If the state says they’ll pay for 50 percent, that’s fine,” she said, “but if the state doesn’t pay, you will not have my support in what goes forward.”

The issues discussed Saturday were contentious yet familiar to most of the participating board members and residents.

Frye Island’s participation in the district traces back to the late 1990s, when the island was part of the town of Standish. In 1997, according to court documents, Frye Island sought to secede from Standish and gain independence as a municipality. It succeeded, but under the condition it would remain part of the Bonny Eagle school district and continue to pay taxes to the schools.

From left, Gary Donohue, James Moses and Jake Stoddard listen at a meeting of the Frye Island Board of Selectmen and the School Administrative District 6 Board of Directors. The meeting aimed to create a dialogue between members of both communities regarding Frye Island’s contribution to the school district budget.