Frankfort residents vote in favor of exploring school district withdrawal

Posted March 09, 2012, at 5:31 p.m.
Last modified March 09, 2012, at 5:51 p.m.

FRANKFORT, Maine — Voters from Frankfort indicated Thursday that they overwhelmingly want to pursue leaving one school district and joining SAD 22 to the north.

About 25 percent of the town’s 1,000 registered voters came to the polls, where 200 cast ballots in favor of withdrawing from RSU 20 and 42 against.

Also, 198 voters indicated they want to join SAD 22, the district that includes Hampden, Newburgh and Winterport, while 42 voted that they didn’t.

Gabe Baker, a parent who has been involved in the process of exploring secession from RSU 20, said Friday that he is glad that the voter turnout was so large.

“It was a clear and decisive decision,” he said. “I’m glad it wasn’t a close vote.”

Informally and now formally, Frankfort has been looking into leaving RSU 20, a nine-town school district that serves Belfast, Belmont, Frankfort, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Swanville.

The ballot vote was just one in a series of 11 steps that must be taken before the town can officially switch its school district. Maine law describes the process in detail, and the next step is for a withdrawal committee to look into the pros and cons of leaving one district and joining another.

That five-person committee will include a Frankfort selectman, a resident who petitioned to withdraw, an at-large community member, Frankfort’s school board representative and a director of RSU 20, Baker said.

“They work through the process of negotiation,” said Baker, who hoped to be named to the panel, which will be formed by the RSU 20 school board.

Something that will be hard for the town is the almost “inevitable” fact that the elementary school, described by many as the heart of the rural community, will close regardless of what happens, Baker said. Neither RSU 20 nor SAD 22 officials have indicated they have the financial wherewithal to keep it open.

Baker and Emil Genest, SAD 22 assistant superintendent, both cautioned that the vote might indicate the town’s preference to withdraw from RSU 20 but it doesn’t mean it will happen.

“In a nutshell, the summary is, do you want to study this?” Genest said. “And of course they voted 5 to 1 to do it.”

He said that in his opinion, having Frankfort students join his district would be “very beneficial” for SAD 22.

“Winterport schools would be filled to capacity. Our enrollment would go up,” he said. “We’re pretty excited.”

Throughout the town’s process of exploring withdrawal, RSU 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux has said that he would like Frankfort to stay.

“They’ve been here a long time. They’re part of the mix,” he said last month at a hearing on the matter in Frankfort.

The process is designed to be slow. Baker said the soonest the town could hope to join SAD 22 would be for the 2013-2014 school year.

Among the negotiations that will start to take place will be a consideration of just how the students will switch schools, or the “drawdown rate.”

Eventually, students will be required to attend schools in the new district, but that wouldn’t mean that a high school junior would be transplanted to a new school for his senior year, officials have explained.

“We have to draw the line where it’s appropriate for the kids and the two districts,” Baker said. “It will put the committee in a delicate situation.”

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