HAMPDEN, Maine — A little more than two months after Frankfort voters resoundingly approved a plan to secede from the RSU 20 (Belfast area) school system, the process leading to the town joining SAD 22 is accelerating.
Monday night marked a milepost in that process as Samuel L. Wagner Middle School hosted an informational public forum on the whole school system shuffle, which would result in the town of Frankfort jumping from RSU 20 to become the fourth member town of SAD 22, which includes Hampden, Winterport and Newburg.
Another informational forum will be held Tuesday, Feb. 26, at Reeds Brook Middle School in Hampden.
In the meantime, a 12-member resident focus group has been formed to help identify issues relating to the reorganization plan and assist in the forums. There may be additional forums scheduled in March.
“We’ve been working with town officials in Frankfort and they are very confident their citizens will vote to join our district,” said Rick Lyons, SAD 22 superintendent of schools. “Right now, it’s been pretty silent as far as current SAD 22 towns and citizens’ reaction.”
The first big calendar date is Thursday, March 28, when Frankfort residents vote on whether or not to join SAD 22. If they vote to join, another vote is scheduled for Tuesday, April 9, when residents of Hampden, Winterport and Newburgh will vote on whether or not to accept Frankfort into SAD 22.
“It works just like our budget process, only in this case it will be an aggregate vote where the totals of all three towns will be tallied, not the totals by town,” Lyons explained.
The polling places will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. April 9 in all three towns.
“We’re very excited to see things moving forward so smoothly,” said Gabriel Baker, a Frankfort resident and chairman of Frankfort’s school system withdrawal committee. “This conversation has been going on for some time now and there are still a lot of details to work out, but we’re appreciative of the diligence SAD 22 officials are giving this right along.”
If voters pass both referendums, the reorganization plan will go into effect on July 1, 2013, for the 2013-2014 school year.
“Our board of select people has approved the plan we’ve crafted along with SAD 22 officials and submitted it to the [Maine Department of Education] commissioner’s office for conditional approval a week ago, and we expect we should hear back in another week or two,” said Baker, whose two children are in the second and fifth grades.
Lyons said if the addition of Frankfort is approved, all students will have the option of staying at their current school or switching to SAD 22 for the first year. After that, attending SAD 22 is mandatory — unless students are currently in grades 8 through 12. Those students will fall under a “grandfather clause” that will allow them to stay in their current system until they graduate, or switch to SAD 22 at any time before graduation, but they can only switch once.
Baker said the switch is basically rooted in the 2009 passage of Maine’s state school consolidation law.
“We used to be part of SAD 56, but then joined SAD 34, which is Belfast, and became RSU 20. We were the only town to vote against regionalizing and joining [the] Belfast school system,” said Baker. “Ever since then, they’ve proposed closing down the Frankfort school and sending our kids to Searsport, which is about 14-15 miles away.”
Ironically, in addition to approving leaving RSU 20 by a 74 percent vote on Nov. 6, Frankfort voters also approved the closing of the Frankfort Elementary School.
“The Leroy Smith School in Winterport is only 4.5 miles from our current elementary school and the Wagner school in Winterport is a half mile closer,” Baker said. “It’s bittersweet for us as a town to close our elementary school to make this transition, but this makes more sense geographically and economically for us.”
The move has gained more steam with time.
“When we voted to explore withdrawal back in March of 2012, it was a fairly close vote, and a lot of parents felt apprehension about change, but there’s definitely a lot of excitement about the move now,” Baker said.