FRANKFORT, Maine — In a sometimes-emotional meeting Wednesday night, residents began wrestling with the tough decision of whether the town wants to secede from its school district and join Hampden-based MSAD 22 to the north.
“Bad idea,” Vern Nickerson, a bus driver for the town’s current district, RSU 20, summed up after the public hearing which was held at Frankfort Elementary School.
His wife, Valerie Nickerson, agreed.
“We have a daughter in eighth grade, and she does not want to move,” she said.
For three years now, some in town have explored the idea of leaving RSU 20, a nine-town school district that serves Belfast, Belmont, Frankfort, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Swanville. Momentum to leave really grew after the RSU 20 board of directors voted a year ago to close Frankfort Elementary School in order to save money. Parents vehemently protested the decision for months, and when the board held another vote in May on the matter, the directors decided to keep the school open for at least another year.
“This school is an indispensable asset to our community,” parent Gabe Baker said at the public hearing Wednesday night.
But many of the 80 or so people in the audience appeared shocked to hear that Baker and others believe that no matter what district the town is part of, chances are slim that the school will be kept open. This fall, 80 children were enrolled in kindergarten through fifth grade.
“How do you know for a fact it won’t be closed?” one woman called out.
“The fact of the matter is, unless some miracle happens in federal or state finance, small schools won’t be affordable,” Baker said.
Frankfort is located at the northern end of the RSU 20 district, right next to Winterport and not too far from Hampden. Many in Frankfort believe that sending students to MSAD 22 — the Hampden, Winterport and Newburgh district — just makes sense.
“We just feel that we’re more geographically aligned with SAD 22,” Allen Gordon Jr., chairman of the Frankfort Board of Selectmen, said before the public hearing.
The Maine state law that governs secession from a school district is fairly complicated and ensures that the decision will not be made hastily, he said.
The first step was for the Board of Selectman to accept a petition to withdraw from RSU 20, which it did at the end of January. Forty-six signatures were needed, Gordon said, and 46 people signed.
The next step was to hold the public hearing. Then, residents will vote by ballot from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, March 8, at the Frankfort Elementary School on whether they prefer to withdraw from RSU 20.
If the residents vote yes, that will direct the town and RSU 20 to form a withdrawal committee and begin the negotiation process. But it does not mean that Frankfort absolutely will leave RSU 20, Baker said.
Bruce Mailloux, superintendent of RSU 20, said before the public hearing that the school district would like to keep Frankfort.
“We would absolutely prefer that Frankfort stay with RSU 20. They’ve been here a long time. They’re part of the mix,” he said. “But it’s not our decision. The people of Frankfort have to make that decision.”
Emil Genest, assistant superintendent for SAD 22, explained to residents some of the practical realities of what would happen if the town joins his district. While the Leroy H. Smith Elementary School in Winterport is “pretty full” and couldn’t take in the entire 80-pupil student body of Frankfort Elementary School, the Samuel L. Wagner Middle School in Winterport has room. The schools likely would shift their enrollment around, he said. He did not promise that the district would work to keep Frankfort Elementary School open.
“We are not exempt from the hard economic times,” he said.
Frankfort high school students would attend the new, $51 million Hampden Academy, which boasts a 900-seat performing arts center and science classrooms built to national standards.
Seth Brown, another parent who has gotten involved in the process of exploring secession from RSU 20, said the town will have to think hard about what it wants.
“What do we want out of the process? What do we want for our kids?” he asked. “I know this is a very emotional decision … . Let’s take the first step and find out what we want.”
Baker said Thursday that the public hearing went as he had anticipated.
“There are people in Frankfort that don’t want to see any change,” he said. “And I think there are people in Frankfort who have come to the realization that change is imminent. If that’s the case, we want to be directing that change, or be along for the ride.”