TRENTON — Voters on Monday rejected a referendum article that would have directed the Board of Selectmen and School Committee to form a committee to develop a plan for withdrawal from Alternative Organizational Structure 91 (AOS 91), also known as the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS).
Two hundred and eight voters disapproved of exploring the withdrawal process, with 121 voting in favor of it.
According to the article, which made its way to the ballot via citizens’ petition, the withdrawal plan would be brought to the state Department of Education for approval before going to voters for final consideration.
While moot now, the question of whether the ballot measure was a legal way to initiate the withdrawal process was a matter of hot debate. In March, the town’s School Committee, which opposed withdrawal, received legal counsel from attorney Greg Im of Drummond Woodsum Attorneys at Law.
Im found that, “What the petitioners are requesting does not follow any existing legal process for withdrawal from the AOS.”
At a School Committee meeting in April, AOS 91 Superintendent Marc Gousse reiterated Im’s findings, stating that, “There is one way to withdraw from the AOS and that pathway has to follow through the School Board or the School Committee.”
In response to the election results, Gousse told The American, “I think it’s nice to know that the community has validated the work of the [School Committee] and all the folks that had been just working really hard to control costs and keep a balanced perspective on what’s best for the kids and also maintain our fiduciary responsibility.”
He said that while the petition did not follow the legal withdrawal process, it provided useful insight into the community’s wants.
“I don’t see this information as anything people should take lightly,” he said, adding he would continue to work with municipal leaders and community members on school and budget matters. “I don’t underestimate that responsibility.”
School Committee Chairwoman Jennifer Bonilla was also pleased with the results.
“Having 345 voters come out, which is probably the largest we ever had…I’m just really proud of the town for coming together and realizing…that having Trenton part of the AOS is a huge benefit,” she said.
“I will still be working diligently to find savings,” with the School Committee, she added.
Discussions about the Trenton Elementary School’s budget and the possibility of withdrawing from AOS 91 have been ongoing and gained traction in 2019 when the Board of Selectmen formed the School Evaluation Options Committee (SEOC) to study cost-saving measures the school could implement to ease the burden on taxpayers. Trenton resident Susan Sargent acted as chairwoman of the SEOC until it disbanded earlier this year. One of the options the SEOC researched and ultimately recommended to the School Committee was withdrawal from the AOS.
After the School Committee chose not to pursue the recommendation, Sargent drafted the citizens’ petition, which garnered 75 signatures, to bring the measure before voters.
In a written statement, Sargent responded to the results saying in part, “The voters did their job. This is how our system works. Now we will learn what the ‘no’ proponents think the solutions are to our rising school budget.”
“What are their suggestions to address the annual, alarming increase in school funding? How will the disproportionate use of taxpayer monies be addressed? What do they think we should do to reestablish local control, identity and pride?”
Sargent said she was pleased with the voter turnout but saddened that the issue had become so divisive in Trenton.
“Our town is now divided and I don’t see this changing in the near future,” she said.
In other election news, Trenton voters rejected a resolution that would have declared the town a Second Amendment sanctuary, with 201 votes against the resolution and 130 in favor.
An article to adopt a resolution supporting the creation of an equitable health care plan for all Mainers passed with 220 votes in favor and 109 against.
Incumbent Selectman John Bennett was re-elected to his seat with 177 votes. Candidate Charles Farley Jr. picked up the second and last vacant seat on the board with 173 votes. Carlene Hanscom was not re-elected to her seat after receiving 151 votes. Write-in candidate Dennis Damon received 108 votes.
School Committee incumbents Aaron Brown and Gary Burr, who each ran unopposed, were re-elected with 249 and 243 votes, respectively.