TRENTON — The School Committee gathered last Thursday at a meeting that was held entirely in executive session to seek advice from legal counsel, according to the meeting’s agenda.
Alternative Organizational Structure 91 (AOS 91) Superintendent Marc Gousse did not discuss details of the meeting, or what the topic of the meeting was, but said a legal opinion had been received and would be shared with the public at the School Committee’s meeting in early April.
The executive session comes on the heels of the Trenton Board of Selectmen’s March 9 meeting, when resident Susan Sargent presented the board with a citizens’ petition to be placed as a warrant article for Town Meeting in May.
The petition, signed by 75 residents, seeks to ask Trenton voters whether they want to direct the School Committee to draft a plan for withdrawal from its current school district, AOS 91. The plan would need to be approved by the state’s Department of Education and then presented to voters for final approval.
The School Committee has indicated it has no interest in leaving the district.
AOS 91, also known as the Mount Desert Island Regional School System, includes Bar Harbor, Mount Desert, Southwest Harbor, Tremont, Trenton, Swan’s Island, Cranberry Isles and Frenchboro. Member towns have their own school boards but share a superintendent and central office staff.
The question of the petition’s legality came up at the Selectmen’s March 23 meeting.
Selectman Dan Monahan, who is also an attorney, shared his concerns about the “questionable legality” of the petition and moved that the board seek legal counsel before placing it on the warrant.
“Town officials have a duty to ensure that petitions are lawful,” and voting on unlawful petitions could lead to lawsuits and expensive litigation, he said.
Selectman Rachel Noble seconded the motion and voted in favor of it. The motion did not pass, with Board Chairman Fred Ehrlenbach and Selectmen John Bennett and Carlene Hanscom voting against the motion.
While a few residents in attendance said the petition was for the formation of a committee to conduct a “study” regarding withdrawal, the petition reads: “Shall the Trenton School Committee and the Trenton Board of Selectmen appoint a committee to draft a plan for withdrawal from AOS 91 and said committee send that plan to the Maine Department of Education for approval and if said plan is approved by the Department of Education, present said plan to the voters of the town of Trenton?”
The Trenton school is part of the district’s Interlocal Agreement, which was developed when the AOS was formed in 2008 and approved by its member schools.
According to the interlocal agreement, member schools’ participation in the AOS “may be terminated upon approval by the Maine Commissioner of Education of a Plan of Termination prepared by the AOS school committee or by the school committees of one or more member school units and thereafter approved by the voters of the AOS or the voters of one or more member school units within the AOS.”
Ehrlenbach said he interpreted the language regarding voters’ approval to be its own, separate pathway for termination.
At the March 9 meeting, he said the board was required to put a citizens’ petition with certified signatures on the warrant.
According to the Maine Municipal Association website, selectmen “are not required to put [a petition] on the warrant if the article seeks something that is beyond the legal powers of the town.”
Sargent, who presented the petition, was the chairwoman of the School Evaluation Options Committee. The group was formed by the Board of Selectmen in 2019 to research cost-saving options the school could implement to ease the burden on taxpayers for funding the school’s rising costs. The group has since disbanded.
Following a year of research, the group recommended to the Trenton School Committee that it begin the withdrawal process from AOS 91.
In a Feb. 9 letter, the School Committee opposed the recommendation and voiced its support for staying in AOS 91. School Committee members said being part of the AOS allowed for partnerships with organizations such as The Jackson Lab, Acadia National Park, Mount Desert Island Hospital and several others.
“These partnerships provide programming, resources and unparalleled support not found in many other public Pre-K-through-[grade] 12 school systems in the state of Maine,” the letter reads.
Additionally, the School Committee said that most of the school’s increases in expenses have been due to special education needs, which are state-mandated costs.