Monday, October 24, 2005

Doubters, worried about schools, find a voice

By TESS NACELEWICZ, Portland Press Herald Writer

Copyright © 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
Staff photo by Herb Swanson
Mark Dyer, a self-employed contractor, is one of the leaders of Chebeague Island's secession movement. He says some opponents are "afraid of change, afraid of self-governance."

Staff photo by Herb Swanson
Gisele Phipps doesn't want her island to break away from Cumberland. She says advocates of secession have been more vocal than opponents, but "there are definitely people opposed."



THE CUMBERLAND TOWN COUNCIL will hold a public hearing to discuss secession today at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.


CHEBEAGUE ISLAND - Fears about the downsizing and possible closing of the island elementary school sparked the secession movement on Chebeague Island this spring. But now, as islanders are set to vote Nov. 8 on whether they should break their 184-year-old ties with Cumberland, some are speaking out against the island becoming a separate town. A major reason is the impact secession could have on island children's access to secondary schooling on the mainland.

Leaving Cumberland likely would mean the end of the island's connection with the Cumberland-North Yarmouth school district. The island of about 350 year-round residents has no middle school or high school, so it would have to negotiate an agreement to pay tuition to send its students to whichever school district would agree to accept them.

"There's a potential of having our kids be like a man without a country," said Gisele Phipps, who has a daughter at Greely Middle School in Cumberland.

However, supporters of the secession effort say they are working on a comprehensive education plan for island students, and are confident it will include a long-term tuition agreement worked out with either the Cumberland-North Yarmouth schools or another nearby school district.

"We will have an excellent education package," said Mark Dyer, who has two children in the island's elementary school and is one of five secession representatives leading the independence movement.

As the advisory referendum draws closer, even supporters say the vote is too close to call.

"In my opinion, (self-governance) is doable," said Herb Maine, who is helping spearhead the secession process. However, he said, "I am not sure the community wants it."

Although 273 islanders - about 80 percent of the town's 336 registered voters - signed a petition this summer to hold a public discussion that initiated the secession process, it's not clear how many islanders truly want to separate from Cumberland.

Some have decided they want to make the break, but others say they haven't made up their minds. Still others are clearly opposed - and are beginning to speak more openly about their doubts as Election Day approaches.

"The people who are in favor of it have been more vocal than the people who are still considering it or who have decided against it," Phipps said. "There are definitely people opposed out there."

Dyer and other secession leaders believe many of the doubts arise out of fear of the unknown.

"There are some people who are getting extremely nervous," he said. "I think they're nervous about change . . . it's human nature . . . they're afraid of change, afraid of self-governance."

But those opposed say they have valid reasons for concern, and among them is education.

Chebeague students attend elementary school on the island and those in grades 6-12 go to Greely Middle School and Greely High School on the mainland. All three schools are run by the Cumberland-North Yarmouth school district, known as Maine School Administrative District 51.

A proposal this spring by the SAD 51 board to send the island's fourth- and fifth-graders to school on the mainland ignited the secession effort.

Board members said the plan would save money and help prepare island children for their transition to middle school on the mainland.

But parents said children of that age are too young to take the ferry and bus trip to school. Also, the plan essentially would have halved the population of the 21-student island school, which islanders say is the heart of their year-round community. They feared the proposal was a first step toward closing the school.

Scores of angry islanders went to the mainland to protest before the board. The board quickly dropped the proposal and said it had no intention of closing the school. However, many islanders remain upset that the board did not come to the island to discuss the issue, and believe the proposal showed how the school district doesn't understand the island's unique educational needs.

But secession opponents contend that having island children become tuition students in the district is not going to improve that understanding.

Cumberland currently has five seats on the eight-member SAD 51 board, and Chebeague islanders are free to run for all of those seats, notes Jean Dyer, a secession opponent who also is Mark Dyer's aunt.

"We don't have a member on the school board because nobody has run," Jean Dyer said. "We could have all we could get elected if we were part of Cumberland."

But if Chebeague weren't part of the school district, islanders not only couldn't hold any seats, they couldn't elect others to represent them, either, she says. "If we are sending our kids as tuition students, we have no control over the school committee," she said.

However, secession proponents point out that a self-governing Chebeague would have total control over the island school. They also say Chebeague would have an advisory board to work with any district that accepts its students.

Supporters also say that Chebeague islanders don't run for the SAD 51 board because of obstacles such as the ferry schedule - the last boat for home can depart before an evening meeting on the mainland ends. Better for islanders to have their own school board, Maine says.

"You could spend that energy trying to get to the mainland to do things . . . or you can spend the energy with your fellow community members and get the work done that way," he said.

It's not clear yet which district would agree to a tuition arrangement if there were a new town of Chebeague.

The SAD 51 board, at its annual meeting on the island last week, told islanders the overcrowded district has a policy of not accepting tuition students unless there are "compelling reasons."

Several board members said they probably would be willing to let Chebeague students who already are in the school system complete their educations, but couldn't make promises for the future.

"If the SAD wouldn't accept us, we have no guarantee another district would accept our students on a long-term basis," Phipps said.

But Maine says that Chebeague's small numbers of students wouldn't overburden any school. And he and others believe SAD 51 would agree to accept tuition students to help keep taxes down.

If Chebeague separates and Cumberland no longer gets the more than $2 million in property taxes the islanders pay, Cumberland's town manager says the town's tax rate could climb anywhere from 17 cents to 90 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. Island taxes are not expected to go up because islanders believe they could run their new town on a budget of $2.1 million.

Although Falmouth has said it can't accept Chebeague students, Mark Dyer says islanders could seek an agreement with other districts in the area.

Ken Murphy, superintendent of the Yarmouth schools, says that district has been losing students for about six years now. He says islanders have talked to Yarmouth and he told them the town currently accepts tuition students. However, Murphy says, that could change in the future if Yarmouth schools become more crowded.

Freeport accepts tuition students from Pownal, but has not been approached by Chebeague, says School Committee Chairman Christopher Leighton. He says Freeport, which has flat enrollment and no overcrowding, might be willing to add Chebeague students because of the extra tuition and the possibility of receiving additional state aid.

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