Chebeague Islanders reach agreement with school district

By Jaime McLeod
CUMBERLAND ­ Negotiators representing School Administrative District 51 and the proposed new Town of Chebeague Island have reached a tentative agreement for the division of assets if the island secedes from mainland Cumberland and the school district.

Separate negotiations with representatives from the town and school district began late last fall, after 86 percent of Chebeague Island voters cast ballots in favor of seceding. Secession must ultimately be approved by the state Legislature.

Secession representatives hired Bob Lyman, former superintendent of Freeport schools, to help them navigate through their negotiations and eventual separation from the district.

During a Dec. 5, 2005, meeting, School Board members voted unanimously on a set of guidelines for negotiations, agreeing the district would not oppose secession if islanders could negate potential negative effects on the education of students, the district's long-term financial obligations, including debt and lease agreements, and the governance structure of the board.

The guidelines further stipulated that district assets must be divided fairly and made clear board members' position that they would not agree to a tax increase for residents of Cumberland or North Yarmouth.

School Board Chairwoman Betts Gorsky said she believes the agreement reached is true to those objectives. According to the agreement, the Town of Chebeague Island would continue to pay a proportionate share of the district's existing bonded annual debt service.

Those payments are scheduled to continue through the end of fiscal year 2026.

Chebeague will also pay the sum of $3.5 million to the district at the time of secession. The payment will mitigate any potential tax impacts in Cumberland or North Yarmouth. Early predictions from Cumberland calculated an annual increase of $300,000 in North Yarmouth's tax burden, although a December presentation by Jim Rier, information systems team leader for the Maine Department of Education, suggested the potential tax impact on the smaller town would be closer to $180,000.

In consideration of that payment, SAD 51 representatives have agreed to educate Chebeague Island's sixth through 12th-grade students for seven years from the date of secession, without additional tuition payments.

All property owned by SAD 51 on Chebeague Island would become the property of the Town of Chebeague Island, and all other property owned by SAD 51 would remain the property of the district.

The agreement with the district comes on the heels of an earlier agreement with the the Town of Cumberland.

That agreement requires Chebeague Island to pay Cumberland 50 percent of the property tax value of the 16 outer islands included in the secession territory for a period of 50 years.

The island will also be responsible for paying $1.3 million to Cumberland by the end of 2007. The payment, which will be in addition to the $3.5 million paid to the SAD, represents a portion of the money the town has already spent on capital assets on the island.

The agreement with the town was contingent upon islanders reaching a satisfactory agreement with the school district. The Town Council is scheduled to meet in executive session on Thursday, Feb. 16, for a final discussion before voting on the issue.

Another provision makes Chebeague Island responsible for 13 percent of Cumberland's contingent and overlapping debt, in the event the notes are called for repayment.

The secession movement gained momentum last February, after the School Board discussed the possibility of reducing the already tiny Chebeague Island School to one classroom, with fourth- and fifth-grade students to be shipped to the mainland. The kindergarten- through fifth-grade school now serves the island's 22 elementary school students.

Islanders argued that the closing of schools is a major factor leading to islands ceasing to remain viable as year-round communities. Other issues included islanders' perception that their property tax burden is disproportionate to mainlanders'. Secession representatives say the inability to afford high property taxes is another factor that drives residents from the island, threatening its survival as a year-round community.

State Rep. Terrence McKenney, a Cumberland Republican, drafted a bill in November meant to serve as a framework for a secession agreement. Right now, the bill only describes what is required of both parties, according to state statute.

McKenney said some form of a bill had to be ready in the event that both sides are ready for secession to be voted on during this legislative session. In order for that to happen, McKenney said, an agreement between the town and the secession representatives would have to be brought to the Legislature by the end of February, at the latest.

Representatives of the secession territory have identified July 1, 2007, as the target date for the secession to take effect.

Jaime McLeod can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or
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