Bethel board endorses SAD 44 cost sharing formula proposal

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BETHEL — Bethel selectmen Monday unanimously endorsed a proposed SAD 44 cost-sharing formula change that district residents will vote on in a Nov. 6 referendum.

“I move that we support it wholeheartedly,” said Selectman Don Bennett.

Background

Some officials and residents of School Administrative District 44 hope the proposed formula, which is more favorable to Newry, will encourage those residents to remain in the district, rather than continue their school withdrawal process.

Two previous proposals to change the formula were defeated by district voters, the most recent one by a narrow margin in November 2017.

Assessments to the SAD 44 towns are currently based 100 percent on valuation, leaving Newry with the highest share, at about $3 million of the roughly $8.4 million total. The town is home to Sunday River Resort.

If approved in the referendum, the formula change’s impact would be phased in over a nine-year period, with the final version of the formula remaining in place thereafter.

For the first two years of the phase-in town taxes would be calculated with 95 percent based on valuation and 5 percent on student population. For the next three years, they would be based 90 percent on valuation and 10 percent on population. For the next three years it would be 88/12 percent, and then finally shift to 85/15 percent for 2028 and beyond.

The proposal also carries a major change from one that was narrowly defeated last year: If the change is approved its implementation would be contingent on Newry residents voting to end the town’s current SAD 44 school withdrawal process. The vote on whether or not to terminate the process would happen in March of next year.

Negotiations between Newry and SAD 44 to come up with a withdrawal agreement for Newry residents to vote on are stalemated. Such an agreement is required for withdrawal to proceed.

If Newry were to vote to withdraw from SAD 44 there would likely be a $2 million tax shift from Newry to Bethel and Woodstock, according to district officials. The last proposed withdrawal agreement from Newry would have spread that shift over 10 years.

Comments

Bennett said at Monday’s meeting that while some residents of other district towns are not sympathetic to Newry because they believe the town is “rich” and should continue to pay as it does currently, he urges those residents to look at the situation from Newry’s standpoint. The town has 38 percent of SAD 44’s total valuation but only 4 percent of the students, according to district information.

A formula change, Bennett said, “is not necessarily a perfect solution, but a way to keep the district together and ultimately keep everyone friends.”

Allen Connors, managing partner of the Bethel Inn & Country Club, said the amount Newry pays is “exorbitant.” He noted that even if a change is approved, Newry would still pay approximately $2.7 million toward the school budget, compared to the $3 million it pays now.

Selectboard Chairman Peter Southam said that while Bethel and Woodstock would pay more under a new formula, the formula would still apply to all and if Newry gained many more students it would again pay more money.

“The same rule applies to every town,” he said.

Selectman Andy Whitney, noting that if the formula is approved it would be contingent on a vote by Newry residents to stop the current withdrawal process, said that theoretically that town could start a new withdrawal process after a few years.

Southam acknowledged that, noting that “everything political is always in flux.”

Jessie Perkins, executive director of the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce, said that any town in the district could start a withdrawal process.

The selectboards of the other SAD 44 towns – Newry, Greenwood and Woodstock – have also endorsed the formula proposal.

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