BELFAST, Maine — Gridlock.
That’s the word longtime math teacher Steve Hutchings of Belfast uses to describe the result of trying to combine two former school administrative districts into one beleaguered regional school unit, RSU 20.
And that’s the word that explains why he is doing his best to encourage the communities of the former SAD 34 — Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont and Swanville — to break away from the consolidated RSU 20 district. That district — which brought together the former SAD 34 and the former SAD 56 towns of Searsport, Stockton Springs and Frankfort after the state school consolidation law passed in 2009 — just isn’t working, Hutchings, who teaches at Belfast Area High School, said Wednesday.
Among the problems he described: teachers have gone 2½ years without a contract and Superintendent Bruce Mailloux and the RSU 20 board of directors has proposed a plan that would dramatically reorganize the district’s schools — such as shuttering some — in order to offset major funding shortfalls.
“The big key is the threat to close the rural schools,” Hutchings said. “It destroys the town. The town follows the school.”
That’s why he and others have started the process to secede from the district. So far, he has submitted a petition signed by 400 residents that asks the city of Belfast to have a referendum on leaving RSU 20. An official at the Belfast city clerk’s office said Thursday that the clerk is still determining whether the petition had enough valid signatures to meet the requirements of the law.
Hutchings said that the group also has collected “enough” signatures from Searsmont and Morrill to hand them over to officials in those towns.
“We’re working on Northport, Belmont and Swanville,” he said.
Hutchings has spoken with Jim Rier, the deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, about his dream to have all six of the former SAD 34 towns leave the consolidated district. Rier was skeptical, Hutchings said.
“The commissioner was right — under a normal situation, how would you get any six towns in Maine to do anything together? But what he doesn’t understand is how upset and frustrated people are,” he said. “[The state] made a mistake. They passed a bad law. They made it tough for us to fix it.”
Frankfort has already voted to explore withdrawing from the school district and joining SAD 22 in Hampden and Winterport.
Mailloux, who is trying to find a solution to the district’s $2.2 million shortfall, said recently that nobody wants to close schools.
“It’s a difficult thing to do,” he said. “But we are in a time of declining revenues and declining enrollment. You just can’t sustain what you used to have when you’re going in that direction.”
Hutchings, it seems, would like in some ways to push the clock back to the days before school consolidation hit the midcoast. He said that it is impossible for districts with such different cultures — and teacher salaries — as the former SAD 56 and SAD 34 to join together smoothly.
“As a Belfast citizen, why do I want my taxes to raise Searsport’s salaries?” he said.
Another problem he sees is that at a time when Belfast’s economy appears to be growing and its positive reputation building, the gridlock with the school district simply does not reflect that.
“People want local control,” he said.
Belfast City Councilor Michael Hurley said that he is very interested in the conversation about education. More than half of the property taxes collected in Belfast are earmarked for the consolidated school district, he said.
“It’s clear that a lot of people are unhappy with how RSU 20 is going,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, and we’re not the only town looking at it. If people aren’t happy, let’s at least get back to just running a school system.”