SEARSPORT, Maine — The first time that the RSU 20 board of directors voted to close the Frankfort Elementary School 18 months ago in a cost-saving measure, the decision was met with vocal dismay from parents and others who jammed the meeting and left in anger or tears.
That vote was overturned a few months later, and the 100-student elementary school was given a yearlong reprieve, to the relief of many Frankfort residents.
But when the school board unanimously voted a second time to close the school during Tuesday night’s lightly attended regular RSU 20 meeting, it was met with much less attention. That’s because district officials said that the action was a necessary part of Frankfort’s efforts to withdraw from the nine-town midcoast school district and join SAD 22 to the north.
RSU 20 is made up of Belfast, Belmont, Frankfort, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Swanville. SAD 22 is made up of Hampden, Newburgh and Winterport.
“The withdrawal will go on whether we close the school or not,” RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter said during the discussion on the agenda item. “We can’t abandon, by state law, a school. It has to be closed.”
According to the withdrawal agreement, if the town decides to withdraw, RSU 20 would sell the school back to Frankfort for $1.
However, the vote still struck an emotional chord with some in attendance, including Gabe Baker, who is on the Frankfort withdrawal committee. He disagreed that the move to close Frankfort Elementary School is necessary at this point in the withdrawal process — in part because if Frankfort residents do not vote in November to leave RSU 20, he feels it is likely the elementary school will still close at the end of this school year and its pupils will have to be taken by bus 13 miles to Searsport. He had asked the directors to consider the matters of school closure and Frankfort’s withdrawal separately, but that did not happen.
“We didn’t know that the district would force us to have our school closure process now,” Baker said after the meeting, with tears in his eyes. “I do read the law the same way [the directors] do but I don’t feel the urgency that they do … They have the school closure they demanded in their process. It’s painful.”
Baker said that his wife teaches at Frankfort Elementary School and their two children are students there.
“I get asked every day, ‘Do we have a school next year?’” he said. “They need answers.”
But during the discussion on whether to close the school, even board members who have said they are vehemently opposed to Frankfort leaving their district decided to vote in favor of the closure.
“They can’t go forward without it,” Director Denise Dakin of Stockton Springs said of the vote to close the school on June 30, 2013. “It’s pretty hard to keep someone here when they want to go.”
Board members also voted, though not unanimously, to accept Frankfort’s withdrawal agreement. Dakin was the sole vote in opposition.
“I don’t believe that the town of Frankfort belongs to Hampden, no matter what you say,” she said during discussion. “You’ve been a part of [SAD] 56, and in my eyes, that’s really where you belong.”
The former SAD 56 and SAD 34 consolidated to form RSU 20.
Director Dorothy Odell of Belfast said that if Frankfort voted to withdraw and the school had not been closed, the district would be left with an empty school building it would not need.
“We didn’t write the law,” she said. “We’re just trying our best to muddle through.”