FRANKFORT, Maine — In this small, rural town, residents say that Frankfort Elementary School serves as the heart of the community.
It’s where their children learn, where their votes are counted during annual town meeting and where townspeople hold events like informational meetings and exercise classes.
And even though the board members of RSU 20 voted 12 to 4 in February to close the school in order to save $390,000 annually for the district, many in Frankfort are not giving it up without a fight.
Just under 100 pupils attend the kindergarten through grade five school.
“The concept of it closing is foreign to us — it just doesn’t make sense,” Gabe Baker, a parent of two students there, said Thursday. “If you take out the school, you become a bedroom community. We can’t attract families, if we don’t have a school for them to go to.”
With that in mind, Baker and others in Frankfort are exploring different avenues that might allow them to keep the school open.
One of those is their strongly held belief that the vote to close their school wasn’t valid. A vocal group of parents, including Baker, believe that the numbers didn’t add up. A weighted two-thirds vote was necessary to close the school, which RSU 20 officials believe was received, but some in Frankfort don’t.
Because there are two vacant seats on the RSU 20 school board, the vote to close the elementary school didn’t garner the two-thirds “supermajority” of the elected membership required by state statute, they argue. They have sought legal advice but have taken no action yet.
“We don’t feel that the vote was a passed vote,” said parent Seth Brown. “We think it failed.”
But RSU 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux disagrees, saying the district consulted its attorney before holding the vote. The problem is that while the law requires a supermajority to close a school in an RSU, it does not define what a supermajority is, he said. The district has defined that as a two-thirds majority of the members who voted.
“Some people have tried to portray that we did something wrong,” Mailloux said. “We’ve done nothing wrong.”
A second option would be for the town to vote to pay to keep the school open. Residents would have to pay their share of the RSU 20 budget and also the $390,000 that would have been saved by closing the school.
No one appears to be seriously considering that option in these difficult economic times.
Another avenue for those who want the school to remain open is the possibility of leaving RSU 20 and joining SAD 22, the neighboring school district that now serves Hampden, Newburgh and Winterport.
Secession has been on the minds of some in Frankfort for years, Mailloux acknowledged.
“That issue has been around since before I came here,” he said Friday.
In fact, when the former SAD 34 communities of Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont and Swanville and the former SAD 56 communities of Frankfort, Searsport and Stockton Springs decided in 2008 whether to consolidate under the new state law, Frankfort was the only no vote.
With that possibility in mind, Frankfort select board members are likely to meet with members of the SAD 22 school board to discuss the issue in the “very near future,” according to SAD 22 Superintendent Rick Lyons.
Some questions the elected officials would consider include whether the move would be practical, how it would be done, what the timeline would be and what the obstacles might be, the superintendent said.
“A conversation of this magnitude has to happen at the board level,” Lyons said, adding that he has thus far had only informal conversations about Frankfort joining his district.
If the secession does take place, it would be a financial blow for RSU 20, Mailloux said. Frankfort is what he calls a “high-receiver” town, meaning that because of its low tax base, it receives a high portion of the state’s general purpose aid for education.
“They are certainly a desirable town for the school district to have,” he said.
Brown, who has a first- and a third-grader at the elementary school, said he is 100 percent in favor of joining SAD 22. His home is actually closer to Winterport Elementary School than Frankfort Elementary School — and if the Frankfort students are bused to Searsport Elementary School, the district’s only facility that could absorb the entire student body, it would be a 13-mile one-way trip.
“Figuring on an hour and a half one-way trip, that’s 53 school days on a bus over the course of one school year,” Brown said. “The amount of time these kids are potentially going to spend on a school bus is just not acceptable to us.”
Mailloux said he met with a group of Frankfort parents, and they expressed the “overwhelming desire” to keep the kids together rather than split them into the district’s closer but smaller elementary schools.
“It’s obviously going to be a longer bus ride, no question, but we’ll make efforts to decrease that in any way that we can,” he said.
But that might not be enough for parents like Brown, who said he also is bothered by what he perceives as RSU 20’s lack of a plan for Frankfort.
“I think what’s important is for everyone to step back and see if this decision is the best for the kids,” he said. “Ultimately, we want Frankfort Elementary School to stay open.”
Closing a school is a painful process, especially in a small town, Mailloux said.
“I totally understand. But I’m also watching our educational programs erode with the continued cuts in funding,” he said. “We’re also in a real tough economic time right now. Do you sit back and watch programs erode? It’s a tough decision.”