STANDISH — The Standish Town Council opposes two bills in the Legislature, seeing the measures as efforts by Frye Island to leave the school district.
The council last week unanimously passed a resolution voicing its opposition to the bills that relate to the future of the seasonal island community.
“Frye Island, obviously, trying to leave SAD 6 has been a big discussion for us for quite some time,” said Council Chairman Steve Nesbitt.
However, Frye Island Town Manager Gary Donahue said in a phone interview that the town does not actually want to leave the school district, but instead is looking for a different cost-sharing agreement.
“We have never gone to SAD 6 and told them we don’t want to pay school tax,” Donahue said, stressing that the islanders believe in supporting education.
The issue stretches back at least to the late 1990s, when Frye Island seceded from Standish to become its own town. At the time, Standish did not oppose the split and the two sides entered into a Memorandum of Understanding that included an agreement that Frye Island would remain part of SAD 6.
All six Standish councilors in attendance at the meeting on April 11 supported a resolution opposing to two pieces of legislation introduced this session by Rep. Sue Austin, R-Gray, who represents Frye Island. Councilor Michael Blanck was the only member absent.
The first bill, LD 749, would remove the existing prohibition on Frye Island leaving SAD 6, according to the bill’s legislative summary.
Both Austin and Donahue pointed out that Frye Island is a particularly unusual situation compared to other towns in the state.
After a 2001 attempt by Frye Island to leave SAD 6, the Legislature passed language specifically preventing them from doing so. And while a 2004 school cost-sharing formula passed by the Legislature established a system where each municipality in a school district pays based on student enrollment, SAD 6 and SAD 44 in the Bethel area were exempted from that statewide change. That means Frye Island and the other SAD 6 towns are still paying school taxes based on property values, not enrollment.
Austin’s second bill, LD 1153, is still in draft form and its summary says that it “proposes to authorize the town of Frye Island to consolidate with another municipality and then establish the territory within the limits of Frye Island as a village corporation within the other municipality.”
While the Standish Town council views those bills as routes for Frye Island to try and leave SAD 6, Donahue says that is not the case. He argues that by giving the island the same ability to withdraw from a school district that other towns in the state have, LD 749 would provide the island with more leverage in discussions with SAD 6 about cost-sharing.
Donahue also said that LD 1153 “has nothing to do with SAD 6” and is meant to help island homeowners have an equal say in the operation of island services such as the ferry and golf course.
Austin expressed her belief in a phone interview that the island wants to contribute to education funding but currently feels overburdened compared to other towns.
“My sense it that these are people who believe in education,” Austin said about Frye Island taxpayers.
Frye Island is one of five towns in SAD 6, though the seasonal town has no students that attend district schools. Along with Standish, the other towns in the district are Buxton, Hollis and Limington.
The five towns all contribute to school district funding based on a cost sharing formula. According to a handout provided by SAD 6 officials at the April 11 council meeting, Standish contributes 38.3 percent of the local funding, Buxton 27.7 percent, Hollis 16.2 percent, Limington 11.7 percent, and Frye Island 6.1 percent.
That same document estimates that Frye Island’s projected tax contribution to SAD 6 based on the district’s preliminary budget would be about $1.5 million.
“All Frye Island is trying to do is have the same equality of all the other towns in the State of Maine,” said Donahue, who stressed repeatedly that the current tax burden is unsustainable for the island of about 520 homes.
Attempts last year to rework the cost-share arrangement and provide Frye Island with some form of fiscal relief were ultimately unsuccessful.
SAD 6 Superintendent Paul Penna and Business Manager William Brockman briefed the Standish Town Council on the preliminary district budget during the April 11 meeting, where they expressed concern about the Frye Island legislation.
“That will be a disaster,” Brockman told the council, responding to a similar comment from Councilor Michael Delcourt. “There are two bills before the Legislature that really have an extreme impact on us if they were to be approved.”
“Neither one of those bills have had a public hearing yet. And and soon as they do, we’ll let everybody know,” Brockman continued. “We’re going to have to do our best to see if we can have some input. And I know our legislators are working diligently on either trying not to get them onto the floor or to do what they can to protect us.”
One of those legislators working to oppose the Frye Island legislation, Rep. Lester Ordway, R-Standish, was also at the April 11 meeting.
“I need your support to back us up on all of this,” Ordway told the council during the meeting. “I don’t know how long we’re going to have to deal with this. They’re going to keep coming and coming and coming.”
“We’re working on it, we still need your support. We don’t need anyone backing down, we need to go after this full force,” Ordway continued. “Just want to assure you that we are doubling down at the legislative level on these bills.”
SAD 6 will hold a special meeting Monday, April 24, at 6 p.m. which will include an agenda item on approval to hire legal counsel relating to a different bill in the Legislature introduced by Rep. Phyllis Ginzler, R-Bridgton. That bill would amend the state laws regarding a municipality seeking to withdraw from a school district.
Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.
From left, Gary Donohue, James Moses and Jake Stoddard at a meeting of members of the Frye Island Board of Selectmen and the School Administrative District 6 Board of Directors in May 2016.