Sebago voters embrace withdrawal from SAD 61

An overwhelming majority of Sebago voters agreed Tuesday to continue pursuing withdrawal from School Administrative District 61.

The referendum, which passed 335-58, will allow the town to send the petition for withdrawal to the school board and the Maine commissioner of education, and authorizes the town to spend $25,000 from an undesignated fund to support costs associated with the withdrawal process, including legal fees.

The next phase in the 22-step process of withdrawal is for the town to establish a four-person committee that will enter negotiations with the school district. In accordance with the state’s procedures for withdrawal, the committee must consist of one municipal officer, one member of the general public, one member from the group filing the petition and one Sebago school board representative.

Voters exiting the polls cited concerns about the future of Sebago Elementary School and the cost of the Crooked River Project as motivations for supporting the withdrawal process.

Michele Bukoveckas, Sebago town clerk, said the voter turnout of 394 roughly quintupled the turnout for when the town voted on the school budget in May 2015. She said the town is “a community that knows how to come together.”

Resident Don Olden said he voted because he wants to keep the school open.

“I grew up here, my son went here, my grandson is at school now. The school is important. Schools bring the community together,” he said.

Jesse Ellebracht, a mother with a 5-year-old son in the district, said she was brought to the polls by her frustration with the school board, which in December proposed renovating the former Crooked River Elementary School in Casco. The measure failed district-wide, with Sebago residents overwhelmingly opposed.

“The taxpayers came together and said we can’t justify $9.6 million (for renovations). The school board came back to the table with $7.8 million, which is still a gigantic number. I don’t personally think we can have people guiding us who are so flippant.

“The fact we’re pursuing this is important,” Ellebracht added. “We need to know our options.”

Allen Crabtree, a former Sebago selectman, said he wanted more transparency from the town about how expenditures for the Crooked River project are to be allocated.

Marsha Christensen said both of her children graduated from the Sebago Elementary School, and “got a great education starting right here.” Christensen said she “want(s) to see negotiation between the district and Sebago.”

Al Smith, superintendent of the school district, said the group pursuing withdrawal has “never formally submitted anything to us nor been willing to meet prior to now. Until the proposal is submitted, I don’t have any answers.”

Smith said he had offered to meet with those seeking withdrawal, but that other than a meeting with the town manager and a separate meeting with a Sebago resident, no one had approached him to discuss the matter.

Joseph McMahon, a school board member from Sebago, said the town did try to speak with Smith at a townwide informational meeting held before the vote on the Crooked River project, and McMahon said the superintendent indicated he would discuss the matter after the vote.

“Basically, he told the town to wait until he had the leverage,” McMahon said.

McMahon said the process of withdrawal is a way for the town to try to renegotiate their contract with the district.

“This isn’t about withdrawal,” McMahon said. “It’s about a relationship between the superintendent and a few members of the board who look at Sebago and keep talking about how Sebago never votes for things. They’ve messed things up and they have to fix it. There’s no other way of approaching it.”

Janice Barter, chairwoman of the school board, said, “I just think that the town doesn’t have all the information they need. I think they are unaware of all the steps, and what they can negotiate, and what by state statutes is non-negotiable.”

Barter said, “I don’t think they are looking out for the best interests of the students.”

Denise Olsen, head of Friends of Sebago Elementary School, was pleased with the vote.

“The residents have spoken loud and clear that there need to be some changes,” she said.

Olsen, who also serves as the town’s recreation director, said that following the negotiations, she hopes the district will “come out as more unified.”

Olsen said Friends of Sebago is still researching its options for negotiations with the district, but said some ideas that have been discussed include renegotiating the district’s cost-sharing formula, taking control of all costs associated with their elementary school or seeking an exemption from paying for other elementary schools in the district.

Jim Rier, who retired as commissioner of the state Department of Education last year, said that these considerations are decided through processes that are separate from the withdrawal process.

Rier said Maine statutes already allow for Sebago residents to decide the fate of their elementary school in the event that the school board votes in favor of closing it. If the town were to vote in favor of keeping the elementary school open, he said, the town could take on the additional costs of maintaining the school while remaining in the district and continuing to contribute according to the cost-sharing formula. This process could be undertaken without entering the withdrawal process.

Olsen said Friends of Sebago Elementary School, was planning to hold a meeting Feb. 4 where residents would be encouraged to brainstorm what they would like to see from a renegotiated contract with the district. Olsen said the ideas from these meetings will be vetted and used by the committee to inform their negotiations.

“I have confidence whoever is on the four-member group to negotiate with the district will be taking into account what the greater majority of residents want,” Olsen said.

At the Sebago Town Hall on Feb. 2, Norma Sicotte helps William Rollins ensure his ballot is properly inserted and counted.Jill Daigle, a Sebago resident with a 5-year-old girl in the school system, casts her vote at the Town Hall on Feb. 2. Residents of the town voted 335-58 in favor of pursuing withdrawal from the school district.