BELFAST, Maine — After an emotional meeting, the RSU 20 board of directors voted Tuesday night to approve the closure of Frankfort Elementary School in order to save money.
More than 80 people, many vocal in their desire to keep the elementary school open, jammed the band room at Belfast Area High School for the regular meeting.
“This has really been thrown at us,” Seth Brown of Frankfort, a parent of two students at the school, said during the public comment portion of the meeting. “I left [Maine], and I came back because my kids deserved to grow up and be part of a small community and a small school. If you cannot find a way to keep that school open, you have served an injustice to the whole community.”
His remarks were met with ringing applause from the audience. A woman stood up and told the board of directors that her special-needs child was thriving at the elementary school thanks to great teachers and a lot of attention.
Eric Carter of Frankfort urged the board members to table their decision.
“Frankfort Elementary School is the jewel of the community,” he said, adding that he and his wife have been discussing leaving the community if the school is closed.
But after their own discussion, 12 of the board members voted in favor of the move, with four voting against it. The motion needed a weighted two-thirds vote to carry, which it received.
Directors Twyler Webster of Frankfort, Denise Dakin of Stockton Springs, Orya Shomron of Belfast and Joyce Chamberlin of Searsmont voted against the school closure.
The next step in the school closure process will be for the Maine commissioner of education to “determine and approve” the cost savings that would be realized by the district, which is estimated at $370,000 annually.
After that, Frankfort residents will have a referendum vote on the school closure. If they support the closure, the school is deemed closed, according to Superintendent Bruce Mailloux’s memo explaining the recommendation.
If voters do not want to close their school, it will remain open, but Frankfort taxpayers will be assessed the amount of money equal to the cost savings of closing the school over and above their regular assessment.
“No matter what the decision here tonight, it’s not going to be an easy decision for anybody,” Dakin said.
According to Mailloux, 97 students attend the kindergarten-through-grade-five elementary school. He and the school district’s budget and finance committee had recommended that it be closed because of an acute need to cut costs. The district is facing a revenue reduction of at least $1.8 million, and for more than a year, the board of directors has been considering closing a school.
Gerald Reid, a board member from Northport who also is chairman of the finance committee, said the committee didn’t see any other course.
“I don’t think there’s any possibility to save $2 million. It’s just too big,” he said. “Our costs are all people and buildings.”
Frankfort was singled out because it is in need of some repair work and has no debt service, unlike other elementary schools that were considered for closure in Stockton Springs and Swanville, Mailloux explained.
It’s not clear where the displaced students will go, but students in the eastern portion of Frankfort are about eight miles from Stockton Springs Elementary, and students in the western and southern portions are closer to the Nickerson School in Swanville.
“Every effort will be made to keep busing time to a minimum,” the memo stated. “Redefining the school boundaries may even reduce busing time.”
During the board’s discussion, Dakin asked whether it might be possible to house the 43 students who attend the district’s alternative high school, B-Cope, somewhere else, in order to find savings that way instead of closing the elementary school.
“Why wasn’t that the option looked at first?” Webster asked.
“Because B-Cope is there for a reason,” Mailloux responded, to the crowd’s audible displeasure. “Because those students struggle in a traditional school environment.”
RSU 20 Director Peggy Andrews of Belfast said the district’s financial pain during the next budget year would not be limited to Frankfort.
“It is not the only part of the district that will be very unhappy with people on the board,” she said. “This year, I can guarantee that.”
After the vote, the board began to move to other business, but they were interrupted by angry outbursts from the crowd.
“I don’t know about you guys, but I think I’ve heard enough,” one woman said while she was walking out.
A man yelled out that the administration now has saved enough money to give itself a raise.
“I think we feel defeated,” Mariko Brown of Frankfort said afterward.
Zach Parker, a Searsport District High School senior who attended the elementary school, said after the meeting that he was very upset.
“It’s not about a school closing. It’s about the whole community going down the drain,” he said. “As I was leaving, I turned around and saw my previous teachers in tears because the school board did not listen.”