BELFAST, Maine — Residents of RSU 20 will have some major decisions to make about the future of their nine-town school district.
However, they won’t be able to vote in November on a radical reorganization plan that would do away with a number of small, rural elementary schools in order to consolidate students and save money. The RSU 20 board of directors voted this week against setting Nov. 8 as the date for a nonbinding referendum for the controversial plan, designed to help the district weather huge losses of revenue and continued million-dollar shortfalls.
The district is composed of Belfast, Belmont, Frankfort, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Swanville.
“What we were trying to do is find out what is the will of the people?” RSU 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux said Friday morning.
But some board members didn’t like the referendum’s wording, and during Tuesday’s regular board meeting the group decided that it would try to seek public opinion in other ways.
The information on the reorganization plan will be mailed to every resident in the region in the fall newsletter, Mailloux said, and other ideas include doing an online survey.
He said that a series of forums on the plan are continuing to be held in every community in the district. So far, six have been held, with turnout averaging between 20 and 30 people.
“It’s a little bit smaller than I was hoping for,” the superintendent said of the attendance. “There’s becoming a general acceptance of the fact that we have some tough financial things coming at us. There’s not going to be a big turnaround here, where we’re all of a sudden funded. We’ve got to do something. We’re not going to be able to afford the status quo.”
He said that many forum attendees do not like the plan that he has put forward. That plan would make the Searsport middle and high school complex the middle school for all of the district’s students. Belfast Area High School would become the high school for the entire district, and elementary schools in Searsmont, Morrill, Swanville and Frankfort would be closed.
Pupils attending those schools would be bused to either Belfast or Searsport.
Mailloux said the district’s residents have proposed alternative ideas, including turning one of the schools into a dormitory to house international students who would pay tuition and add to the revenue stream. Another idea would be to close a middle school and turn the rural elementary schools into kindergarten through eighth-grade schools.
Additionally, district officials have heard many ideas of how to save small amounts of money.
“I appreciate the fact that people are taking the time to come up with ideas,” Mailloux said.
The district is struggling with how to cope with MaineCare revenue losses of more than a million dollars both this year and last year. That shortfall is a result of a federal decision to no longer fund Medicaid programs that include site rehabilitation and day treatment programs for students with cognitive disabilities.
Although the programs no longer are funded, Maine state law says they must continue to be provided, Mailloux said.
The superintendent also doesn’t expect to see a major increase in state or federal funding for the district. He said the rural, semicoastal district is in a hard position because its schools and population are so spread out that it’s hard to efficiently use facilities. Another explanation for the gloomy financial outlook is the coastal communities’ higher property valuations “in the state’s eyes,” which means the district must pay a higher percentage of school costs, Mailloux said.
But many of the problems were created by the school consolidation law, he said. It has been hard to merge two different and spread-out school districts: the former SAD 56, in Searsport and surrounding areas, and the former SAD 34 in the Belfast area.
“I have to admit, I’m fairly envious of superintendents who have not had to deal with consolidation,” Mailloux said.
RSU 20 reorganization forums will be held Tuesday, Oct. 4, at the Belmont town office; Wednesday, Oct. 5, at the Weymouth School in Morrill; Thursday, Oct. 13, at Drinkwater School in Northport; Tuesday, Oct. 18, at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast; and Thursday, Oct. 27, at Searsport High School. All forums will begin at 7 p.m.
Those interested may obtain a copy of the reorganization plan concept at the RSU 20 Central Office at 6A Lions Way in Belfast or find it online at http://www.rsu20.org/reorganization.