AUGUSTA — In a debate that dates back at least two decades, the future of Frye Island and its role in SAD 6 made its way to Augusta last week.
The school district sees several pieces of legislation in Augusta as efforts by the island to potentially leave the school district and take about $1.5 million in school funding with it. Frye Island leaders say they don’t want to leave the district, and are only looking to keep their community sustainable and have a more equal seat at the table.
“If we’re going to provide educational services for our students, then we need to protect the dollars that we have,” SAD 6 Superintendent Paul Penna said at an April 24 school board meeting held to approve legal represenation related to Frye Island.
“We have never proposed to cut one single penny,” said Frye Island Selectwoman Betsy Gleysteen later at the same April 24 board meeting. “We proposed to re-balance the formula between the towns – it would have saved Standish taxpayers money, as well as Frye taxpayers. It would have cost Hollis, Limington, and Buxton more money, there’s no doubt about it.”
Frye Island officials say their community is on an unsustainable financial path and that they need relief from their current share of school funding. SAD 6 is one of only two districts in Maine exempted from the statewide school cost-sharing formula where each municipality in a school district pays based on student enrollment.
SAD 6 and SAD 44 in the Bethel area are still paying school taxes based on property values, not enrollment. Frye Island, which has no students in district schools, has suggested changing the cost-sharing formula to 50 percent property value and 50 percent enrollment, but negotiations last year were ultimately unsuccessful.
Two bills under consideration in legislative committee hearings last week drew officials from both sides of the issue to Augusta. LD 1153, a bill introduced by Rep. Sue Austin, R-Gray, had a hearing before the State and Local Government Committee on Monday, April 24. LD 1336, introduced by Rep. Phyllis Ginzler, R-Bridgton, had a hearing before the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on Wednesday, April 26.
LD 1153, which would allow Frye Island to create a village corporation, will almost certainly go nowhere this legislative session after the committee unanimously voted it “ought not to pass” the full Legislature. That vote came after Austin asked the committee to vote against her own bill because Frye Island was not ready.
The bill was still in draft format, but its summary may explain why SAD 6 officials and the Standish Town Council opposed the bill. That summary referenced an authorization for Frye Island to consolidate with another municipality, which some see as an attempt to leave the school district.
However, both Austin and Frye Island Town Manager Gary Donahue said that language was a mistake and did not reflect Frye Island’s intent with the bill.
Donahue emphasized in a phone interview that Frye Island is exploring a village corporation in order to provide all of its homeowners with an equal say in the management of the island. Currently, only about 150 people are Frye Island residents that can vote in town elections. Donahue says that a village corporation would empower non-resident homeowners in town decision-making.
“To begin, it should be pointed out that the language in the summary referring to authorization of consolidation with another municipality should not be part of this bill and is NOT, nor ever has been, the intent of this bill,” Austin said in her written testimony to the committee. Donahue said the summary was mistakenly included at by the legislative office that drafts bills.
The other bill under consideration in Augusta last week was LD 1336. That bill would amend the laws relating to a single town trying to withdraw from a school district, which could possibly expedite the process for towns having trouble engaging with their local school district in the withdrawal process. This bill does not immediately affect Frye Island, because the island community is the only town in Maine specifically prevented from leaving its school district by state statute – a situation that Donahue views as discriminatory.
However, Rep. Austin has introduced another bill, LD 749, that would remove the existing prohibition on Frye Island leaving SAD 6. If LD 749 were to pass, then any potential changes from LD 1336 would also hypothetically apply to Frye Island.
During the hearing on LD 1336, several people suggested an amendment to the bill that would specifically exempt SAD 6 and SAD 44.
Donahue says that such a carve-out would be yet another example of discrimination against the island.
Several Standish officials, however, don’t see the current situation where Frye Island cannot withdraw as a form of discrimination. Instead, they say that the prohibition on Frye Island leaving the district is an extension of the deal Frye Island made when Standish agreed not to oppose the island’s secession in the late 1990s.
“That’s the agreement that was made,” said Standish Town Councilor Greg Sirpis, adding that he thinks “there’s a lot of deflection and misdirection” from Frye Island.
“It just preserved what was there. That’s the deal that they came up with,” said Rep. Lester Ordway, R-Standish, who serves on the State and Local Government Committee.
Standish Town Manager Gordon Billington, who has testimony against LD 749 ready for when the Education and Cultural Affairs committee holds a hearing, has a slightly more nuanced view.
Billington said that he understands some of the challenges that Frye Island is facing and that island officials have suggested some creative ideas during negotiations.
“I see their side of the story and their hardships,” Billington said, though he was clear about his opposition to LD 749.
“A contract is a contract,” Billington said.
Donahue said that he wasn’t involved in the discussions in the 1990s.
“If we made a mistake in 1997, do we pay for it forever?” Donahue said, repeating something he had asked someone after the Wednesday hearing. “Does the town go out of business, do we go bankrupt because of it? Or should we try to come up an amicable solution between the communities?”
Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.
Attorney Bill Stockmeyer from Drummond Woodsum testifies on behalf of SAD 6 before the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee in Augusta on April 26.