BELFAST, Maine — Parents and teachers who support Frankfort Elementary School were in tears once again Tuesday night after the RSU 20 board of directors held another vote to decide whether to close the school.
But this time, the tears were happy ones.
The motion to close the school on June 30 needed a weighted two-thirds vote to carry at the regular directors’ meeting, and it did not receive that.
When the votes were tallied, many in the packed audience at the Belfast Area High School library exploded into cheers, tears and excited chatter.
“I am absolutely thrilled beyond words,” Kim Lemont, whose children attend the school, said immediately after the vote. “I am so excited that they finally did the right thing. I’m proud to be a member of the community.”
For months, that sentiment seemed to be the exception for many in Frankfort who vociferously disagreed with the directors’ decision on Feb. 8 to close the elementary school in order to save money.
Superintendent Bruce Mailloux said then that the board’s budget and finance committee had recommended the closure in order to save nearly $400,000 annually for the district, which is facing a revenue reduction of at least $1.8 million.
At that time, 12 of the board members voted in favor of closing the school and four voted against it, which the district’s legal council had determined would be sufficient.
But a vocal group of Frankfort parents believed the vote was invalid. At the time of the February vote, Belfast had two vacant seats on the RSU 20 board. The parents argued that without those directors, the vote did not garner the two-thirds supermajority of the elected membership required by state statute.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the superintendent said that although the board had taken the February vote in good faith, subsequent legal counsel had found that the law is “a little bit vague” on the requirements for school closure.
After holding three executive sessions to discuss the matter, board members decided two weeks ago to hold another, Mailloux said. By this time, the two vacant seats had been filled.
Although a couple of directors spoke in favor of postponing the vote, Director Peggy Andrews of Belfast said that was not a good idea.
“It is in the students’ worst interests to drag this on into May and not vote tonight,” she said.
Director Denise Dakin of Stockton Springs said that the issue was very dear to her heart.
“I’m not here because of the dollars. I’m here because of the kids,” she said. “I’m not going to vote tonight to close Frankfort. I’m not going to vote to close any elementary school. They’re probably going to kick me off the board for it.”
Her remarks were met by enthusiastic applause from the crowd.
But Director Darren Philbrick of Searsport seemed to speak for many on the board when he said that the district’s financial strategy is not sustainable and every year the district is losing state and federal funding.
“Something has got to change,” he said. “What we’ve been doing is cutting out the middle and high school curriculum. We all need to think toward the future.”
Before the board members discussed the motion to close the elementary school, some parents and others spoke in favor of keeping it open.
They said that the 92 pupils thrive in the small, community school, which they describe as a caring environment. They told the directors that they’d be willing to pay more in taxes to keep the school open. And some talked about how they are frustrated with the entire process, which to them has appeared to happen primarily in executive session with few opportunities for the public to work with the board of directors.
“I feel excluded even when I get to speak,” said Glenn Baker of Searsport, whose grandchildren attend the school.
After the vote, which was 10 in favor of closing, five opposed and one abstention, the apparently board of directors took a break to regroup.
Mailloux said that the next agenda item was to pass the 2011-2012 budget, but with $390,000 that needs to be found, that might not happen right away.
The money would come from either more cuts or higher taxes or some combination of the two, he said.
Director Alexa Schweikert of Swanville, who voted in favor of closing the school, said that she was concerned for the district’s taxpayers.
“We’re dealing with a financial situation,” she said. “We all felt that the students would receive a really good education within the district, although I was sad to close a community school.”
That’s the opposite reaction of Frankfort Director Twyler Webster, who voted to keep it open.
“I’m very happy,” she said. “I’m a very firm believer in small school education.”