Parents, others push back against school reorganization at Searsport meeting

Posted July 01, 2011, at 7:51 p.m.

SEARSPORT, Maine — Speeches were long and tempers at times grew short Thursday night at Searsport District High School as concerned parents, educators and RSU 20 administration officials grappled with the idea of a major change to the area’s schools.

According to the RSU 20 reorganization plan concept, which was unveiled this spring, the district would merge its two high schools into one, create a districtwide middle school and close four elementary schools, among other changes.

The district encompasses Belfast, Belmont, Frankfort, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Swanville.

Parent Seth Brown of Frankfort said he understands the need to generate more revenue, which is one of the crucial points of the reorganization plan. He suggested one way of doing that would be to entice foreign students to Searsport, where the high school’s standards-based assessment has generated a lot of buzz from around the state and even the country.

“If they can get Chinese students to go to Millinocket, I’m pretty sure we can get Chinese students to go to Searsport,” he said.

“It’s a good idea,” replied RSU 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux. “That’s what we’re looking for.”

The evening at the high school marked the second public forum on the topic, with about 40 people in attendance. On Wednesday evening, about 70 people came to the Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast to share their thoughts, according to Mailloux.

He told the assembled crowd in Searsport that the reorganization would save an estimated $1.83 million annually, and that there would be some educational benefits as well.

“Teachers at the various grade levels would be able to collaborate,” he said. “There would be more consistency in our education.”

According to the concept, the Searsport District Middle and High School complex would become the districtwide middle school, with all students in grade six through eight attending school there. All high school students would attend Belfast Area High School, with BCOPE continuing as the alternative high school.

Additionally:

• Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast would become an elementary school for kindergarten through fifth-grade students from Ames Elementary School in Searsmont, Gladys Weymouth Elementary School in Morrill and Kermit Nickerson Elementary School in Swanville.

• East Belfast School will become a preschool center, housing programs from Searsmont, Swanville, East Belfast and Belfast.

• Frankfort Elementary School students would move to Searsport Elementary School and the Frankfort school would close.

• Stockton Springs Elementary School, Drinkwater School in Northport and Captain Albert Stevens Elementary School in Belfast would remain open.

But the push-back to the concept, and seemingly to the 3-year-old consolidation of the former SAD 56 and SAD 34, became testy on occasion Thursday night.

“How come the kids at Searsport would have to wait for a common high school to get [educational consistency]?” asked Denise Harriman of Stockton Springs. “It seems to me that since we became the RSU, Belfast still gets everything. We’re like the evil stepchild.”

Mailloux responded that consolidation did not immediately mean equality, but that the district was moving toward that over time.

Glenn Baker of Searsport said that if all the high school students in the district attend BAHS, sooner rather than later the district would need a new, and expensive, school.

“Is heading in this new direction really going to be cost-efficient?” he asked.

Others spoke about how the two high schools have very different educational styles and assessment systems. Some suggested that SDHS look into becoming a charter or a magnet school.

Judy Cohen, school assistance counselor at SDHS, said that she was concerned about combining the two schools.

“I am convinced that if we pick up 200 or so kids and plop them into an established high school, people are going to get lost,” she said. “There’s going to be chaos. Human chaos. We have to start connecting the human element with the money element.”

Baker gave a quick history lesson, reminding those in the room that the community had pulled together 15 years ago to save SDHS, which lost its state accreditation because of subpar facilities. In 2002, $5 million worth of new additions and renovations were made to the high school and middle school.

“It was a success story,” Baker said. “That was all human energy of the people in the communities that made that happen.”

His words were met with applause.

While some RSU 20 directors in the crowd talked about how the district is striving for curriculum equity and explained how the lack of money has essentially led to the reorganization concept, another director took a different tack.

Denise Dakin of Frankfort said that both high schools are unique and that she does not want to close either one.

“Nothing says this is a done deal,” she said of the reorganization plan concept.

According to Mailloux, future public forums about the plan are not yet scheduled but likely will begin in late August. District officials want to hold a forum in each of the nine towns.

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