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Voters pull final trigger on Eagle Lake withdrawal from school district

EAGLE LAKE, Maine — Voters in Eagle Lake approved the final step, Tuesday, to withdraw from School Administrative District 27, bringing an end to a process which has been ongoing for two years.

With residents casting 190 votes for and 94 against leaving SAD 27, the community is set to now, not only leave the district, but also take ownership of the former Eagle Lake Elementary School located on Main Street.

Members of SAD 27’s school board and Superintendent Ben Sirois meet briefly Wednesday morning to review Tuesday’s Election Day results. Eagle Lake residents voted to leave the school district. Participating in Wednesday’s meeting are, from left , Joel Bossie, Gary Sibley Jr., Clarence ‘Cur’ Soucy, Sirois, Rep. John Martin and Barry Ouellette. (Don Eno | SJVT/FhF)

The withdrawal plan agreed upon by the town and district, and approved by the Maine Department of Education, includes transferring ownership of the former elementary school building to the town. Possible options for what to do with the building have been discussed at past public meetings in Eagle Lake, although there is no plan in place at this time.

“I think we should have voted a long time ago to withdraw,” Eagle Lake resident Fred Michaud said last night outside the polling place at the town office.

Michaud said outlying communities, such as Eagle Lake have been mistreated by attaching their share of education costs to property values, rather than the number of pupils from the community attending district schools.

In August 2016, SAD 27 board members voted to close the Eagle Lake Elementary School and this fall all students began attending schools in Fort Kent.

In anticipation of that closure vote and wanting to be proactive in considering its options, residents in Eagle Lake had formed the withdrawal committee in September 2015.

SAD 27 also serves students from the member communities of Fort Kent, Wallagrass, St. Francis, St. John and New Canada, and tuition students from Allagash. Winterville, which withdrew from the school district in 2015, also pays tuition to send its students to SAD 27 schools.

At one time, Eagle Lake residents were pursuing the possibility of leaving the SAD and opening their own school at the site of the former school.

That is, technically, still part of the withdrawal plan. However, due to the anticipated high costs, members of the withdrawal committee said at an Oct. 29 public meeting that such an option was a nonstarter.

“I am disappointed that Eagle Lake has decided to withdraw from the district,” SAD 27 Superintendent Ben Sirois said in an email Wednesday. “We are always stronger when we work together as a team.”

Early Wednesday morning, members of the SAD board met to review the results.

“Well, the building’s not ours,” commented board chair Barry Ouellette.

During that brief meeting, board members approved moving forward with the paperwork formally transferring ownership of the school building to the town of Eagle Lake.

Eagle Lake Elementary School (File Photo | SJVT/FhF)

Eagle Lake will continue to have representation on the SAD 27 board through June 30, Sirois said at Wednesday’s meeting. This allows the town to continue having input while its students complete this school year.

Sirois said there would be no impact to Eagle Lake students or their education following the vote. All students from the community have been attending SAD schools in Fort Kent since Eagle Lake Elementary closed its doors last year.

Tuesday evening, before all the votes were cast, Eagle Lake Town Manager Sandra Fournier said the turnout during that day had been high, with more than 200 people having voted before dinner.

“I’m getting both sides,” of the withdrawal question, Fournier said, referring to what voters had said to her while at the polls.

Fournier said once it takes ownership of the school building, the town will be responsible for its maintenance and impending winterization, as there are no immediate plans to make use of the facility. Funding for that maintenance, Fournier conceded Tuesday, has not been budgeted.

In the interim, the SAD will continue to maintain the building.

“We will continue as we’ve been doing to date, which is to supply the building with minimal heat and to do a weekly check of the building,” Sirois said in his email.  “We fully expect the transfer of ownership to occur within the next few weeks.”

With the withdrawal, Eagle Lake residents will now have to create and elect individuals to their own school board. Starting next school year, the community likely will pay for its students to attend SAD 27 schools via a tuition agreement.

Sirois said the financial impact to the district of Eagle Lake’s withdrawal was difficult to determine at this early stage.

In July, the district voted to accept a cost share amendment for all additional local funds required to run SAD 27. That article called for such additional funding to be based 100 percent on a “municipality’s most recent calendar year average subsidized resident pupil count,” rather than totally on its property valuations, which had been the norm.  

This would only be the case, however, if Eagle Lake stayed with SAD 27. Upon its withdrawal, the new local funding formula goes to one in which only 50 percent of the extra local cost is based on student population, with the other based on “property fiscal capacity,” or property valuation.

Sirois commented that, based on information previously presented by Eagle Lake’s withdrawal committee, that community would have saved $69,000 next year, based on the 50/50 funding formula which would be in place had it stayed in SAD 27.

The long term impact of rising property values, however, coupled with low enrollments was a driving financial factor in Eagle Lake residents’ decision to leave. At a recent public hearing, Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said he was told by state assessors to expect property valuations in Eagle lake to continue to rise for the foreseeable future.

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