Alna talks school choice from all sides
Some Alna residents wondered if tax hikes will force them out, others questioned the quality of some public schools, and the phrase PFA for people from away became people from Alna Monday night, at a public hearing on the March 23 school choice referendum.
Maine Public Radio, Fox 23 News, Lincoln County Television, Sheepscot Valley Regional Unit 12 officials and about 150 residents of Alna and nearby towns turned out at the fire station. Some attendees stayed more than three hours until all who asked to speak got to, or said they will save their comments for a second hearing on Monday, March 12.
First Selectman David Abbott explained later, the second night was called because the hearing notice wasn’t posted everywhere it needed to be; so the ballot question will get a hearing the same night as the other two local referendums, to let businesses sell alcohol to consume on-site.
Asked what drew MPR to cover Alna’s school choice question, reporter Robbie Feinberg said it’s a complex local issue.
As the fire station’s truck bay filled with meeting-goers, resident Ralph Hilton said the interest from residents and others showed him he was right to bring the petition that led to the vote. “Now we’re going to deal with it one way or the other,” he said about the proposal to drop private schools from the town’s K-8 school choice; the question grandfathers children living in Alna by this June 30. Some speakers Monday asked if the grandfathering would hold up legally, and if proponents would later seek to eliminate all school choice.
Third Selectman Doug Baston responded, as long as he’s on the board, he would not support that. “And I can’t imagine this town would. But that’s the best guarantee I can give you.”
As for the ballot question’s legal strength, SVRSU 12 Superintendent of Schools Howie Tuttle said the district has not researched it. In an interview after the meeting, Tuttle and SVRSU 12 board chairman Gerry Nault explained if Alna passes the change to the district’s reorganization plan, the board could approve or reject sending it onto the district-wide vote the change would require.
Some speakers raised questions over public schools’ quality in former district member Wiscasset, which still accepts district students, and in district member Whitefield.
SVRSU 12 representative Spencer Bailey told the crowd public school systems are run democratically. “And that's the best system we have on the planet,” he said.
Alna’s Erica Davis asked if quality had been considered to explain the private school attendance which resident Ed Pentaleri cited in his independent analysis for selectmen and Hilton. He did it as a volunteer and presented it at the meeting’s outset. He said afterward, at selectmen’s request he expects to give the presentation again March 12. The graphics are available at alnafacts.org
Pentaleri said the analysis, including information he got from the school district and the Maine Department of Education, indicates if Alna had followed the enrollment trends of the district’s other towns, it would have shed its title of highest tax rate in Lincoln County a couple of years ago. He charted taxes he linked to Alna’s deviation in enrollment and said the 27 students this fiscal year above district trends cost taxpayers $314 for every $100,000 of assessed property value; and the trend puts the amount at $413 the following year and $485 two years out.
Asked for reaction later about school quality comments, Nault said the public-private comparisons cannot be drawn accurately without comparing results of the tests public schools conduct and private ones do not.
Officials picked the bay to meet in due to an anticipated high turnout. In a break from Alna’s public hearings of recent years, selectmen got a moderator and a Lincoln County sheriff’s deputy. Abbott has said the board wanted to avoid pandemonium. He added Monday, the deputy was requested due to the expected turnout and the concerning message Alna for Choice in Education received via its website last month.
Town Clerk Liz Brown asked attendees to sign in. Other note pads asked prospective speakers to sign up to speak for the proposal, against it, or neither. Moderator Carl Pease got through each list of names. He asked attendees not to applaud, instead – smiling and hands waving – he offered them the American Sign Language applause sign to use instead. Some did early on, smiling as they did.
Resident of two years Ona Brazwell got applause when, speaking about her good experiences in town, she said: “And if anybody doubts my commitment, or doubts ... our residency in this town, just come up to us at the Alna (General) Store and say hi, and my children will proudly tell you that they are PFAs — people from Alna.”
Fellow resident Brittney Morgan Bardo voiced concern taxes will rise as selectmen have predicted under the current school choice policy. She said she is getting older and she and her husband are self-employed. “At some point, I may have to move out of town because I can't afford my taxes (on) the beautiful home my husband built for me.”
Fred Bowers has lived in Alna four decades. He said if he lit a candle in his house, the wind could blow it out. “As older residents leave because they can't afford their taxes and families with children take their place, that will turn the town’s fiscal health upside down.”
Alna for Choice in Education member Jeff Philbrick said full choice gives parents options for making the best decision for their children each year. “(It’s) an insurance policy for the best education possible.”
Monday’s hearing at the fire station starts at 6 p.m.