Chebeague deal with SAD 51 set

By TESS NACELEWICZ, Portland Press Herald Writer

Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Chebeague Islanders and the Cumberland-North Yarmouth school district have reached a tentative agreement on financial terms under which Chebeague will leave the district if it secedes from Cumberland.

Under the agreement, Chebeague would pay $3.5 million to School Administrative District 51 at the time of secession and assume a share of the district's bonded debt.

The district would cede ownership of the elementary school on the island to the town of Chebeague. It would educate island students in grades 6 through 12 at Greely Middle School and Greely High School in Cumberland without collecting tuition for seven years following secession.

The SAD 51 school board may vote on Friday to formally approve the plan, if its legal wording has been finalized by attorneys.

The agreement is the last local hurdle in the secession effort begun by islanders last spring after SAD 51 proposed downsizing the island's elementary school.

Residents feared that the school would close, causing young families to abandon the year-round island community of about 350 people.

Pending approval of the agreement, the Cumberland Town Council is expected to vote within the next two weeks to approve a tentative agreement that it made with islanders last month regarding the division of town debts and assets if Chebeague secedes.

The council will hold a public hearing on secession at Town Hall at 7 tonight.

Having secession agreements from the town and the school district will boost islanders' chances of persuading state lawmakers to let the island separate from Cumberland, after being part of the town for 185 years.

Chebeague needs approval from the Legislature before it can become its own town on July 1, 2007, as islanders hope.

A public hearing on a bill to authorize Chebeague to secede from Cumberland is scheduled for March 3 before the Legislature's State and Local Government Committee.

Beverly Johnson, a leader in the island's secession effort, expressed relief on Wednesday that islanders and SAD 51 had reached a settlement.

"I'm really pleased we were able to come up with a resolution to all this . . . I'm really happy we have an agreement," she said.

Betts Gorsky, chairwoman of the school board, said, "It's a fair settlement, in our minds, on the assets and liabilities."

She said the district would lose the taxes that Chebeague contributes, which amounted to $1.5 million this year and would rise as property values on the island increase.

Negotiations took about a month. Gorsky said they moved quickly because islanders wanted an agreement before going to the Legislature.

Gorsky also said she is pleased that the agreement met the board's stipulation that school taxes for residents of North Yarmouth and mainland Cumberland would not increase because of secession.

Under the agreement that Cumberland worked out with islanders, the town's tax rate wouldn't increase because of the separation.

Under that agreement, Chebeague would pay the town $1.3 million for its share of town assets. The island would take with it 16 nearby islands or parts of islands, and pay Cumberland half of the property taxes those islands generate for the next 50 years.

Islanders, who plan to run their new town on the $2 million in taxes they pay each year as part of Cumberland, have projected that their taxes would remain stable.

However, Johnson said islanders are reviewing their budget in light of the new agreement with SAD 51.

"We hope there won't be a tax increase, at least not in the first year," she said.

Chebeague would pay a percentage of the district's bonded debt until the 2025-26 school year. Gorsky said the actual figure would vary from year to year.

Chebeague's property value now is about 13 percent of the district as a whole, so its share of the debt this year is about $271,000.

Because of the loss of island property value, the district expects to receive about $940,000 in extra state school funding if the island secedes. Should that not occur, the agreement would be void, Gorsky said.

After the expiration of the agreement to have SAD 51 educate Chebeague students without tuition payments for seven years, Chebeague and the district could negotiate a new arrangement, Gorsky said.

An average of about 25 students from the island attend schools on the mainland each year, she said.

Staff Writer Tess Nacelewicz can be contacted at 791-6367 or at: