Eustis residents submit petition to withdraw from MSAD 58
EUSTIS - Residents submitted a petition to the board of selectmen Tuesday evening, requesting the town begin the process to explore withdrawing from MSAD 58.
Selectman Chair Earl "Jay" Wyman Jr. confirmed Wednesday that the petition included 69 signatures, roughly double the necessary number to begin the process. To begin the process, Maine Department of Education requires a number of signatures exceeding 10 percent of the number of voters at the previous gubernatorial election. The next step, Wyman said, was an informational hearing some time in September, followed by a series of town votes and developing an Agreement of Withdrawal. Assuming affirmative votes, the process is expected to take approximately six months.
At the heart of the discussion is MSAD 58's ongoing efforts to fund operations and maintain programming, in the face of the twin challenges of declining enrollment and rising state-calculated valuation, which equates to less state funding. The school board has been talking about the issue for the past several years, including discussions about combining grades, shifting classes and closing facilities.
On Jan. 31, the board held a special meeting dedicated to the future of the Stratton Elementary School. More than 150 residents attended the two-and-a-half-hour-long meeting, which was organized by the district to help the school board determine if the Stratton School should be funded through the 2012-2013 fiscal year. At that meeting, the vast majority of speakers were residents of Eustis, speaking against closing their local school. In addition to concerns about busing elementary students south and larger class sizes, several speakers told the board that they considered the school part of their town's identity.
The school board voted unanimously to keep the school open at the conclusion of the meeting. However, some directors warned those in attendance that MSAD 58 would have to change in order to meet the challenges of declining enrollment.
The $9.5 million budget recommended by the school board passed in May, with several attempts to reduce the budget with amendments failing by roughly the same margin: 45 to 50 in favor of the reduction and 72 to 77 opposed.
Today, Wyman noted that a large number of Eustis residents attended the meeting to help ensure the budget wasn't cut further. That trend continued through the budget's validation vote, where a 186-to-5 margin of support for the budget in Eustis helped lead to the budget's passage.
Wyman said that the difficult budget processes over the past two years had led to many in town feeling that the school might be at risk of closure. A quote from Selectman Jano Wilkinson included in the statement released about the petition read: "By taking back control of our own elementary school the town of Eustis is striving to eliminate some of the uncertainty that has plagued educational planning recently."
Wyman said that the decision to explore withdrawing from MSAD 58 had significant support in Eustis, from both parents as well as residents on fixed incomes or those without children.
"I think the general consensus of the town is behind it," Wyman said.
Wyman said that school board members and the MSAD 58 administration had been made aware of the petition. He said that he was interested in continuing to work with the district, regardless of the outcome of the withdrawal process.
MSAD 58 Superintendent Brenda Stevens confirmed that the district had been aware that the petition had been in the works. Noting that MSAD 58 had a long history of collaborating with communities both in and outside of the district, particularly when it came to providing educational opportunities for students, Stevens said that Eustis and the process "deserve our respect."
"Every town needs to look at their options when it comes to the education of their children," Stevens said. She noted the importance of staying "open-minded and collaborative," which she said was the best way to overcome "huge challenges like declining enrollment."
The time, date and location of September's hearing will be announced once set, Wyman said. Following that, Eustis residents would need to vote to officially begin the withdrawal process at a special town meeting. A withdrawal committee would then be formed and work to negotiate an Agreement of Withdrawal with MSAD 58. Following public input and additional hearings, if the DOE approves the final agreement, Eustis residents would vote on the agreement.
Organizers are anticipating a need for subcommittees throughout the process. Those interested in assisting with the effort are being asked to contact Wyman at the Eustis Town Office at 246-4401.