BELFAST, Maine — Does breaking up always have to be hard to do? Members of the withdrawal committees from six RSU 20 communities are hoping to prove the old song wrong as they work to develop a plan to leave the troubled school district.
“From a financial viewpoint, it makes an awful lot of sense to withdraw,” Eric Sanders, the chairman of the Belfast withdrawal committee, said Wednesday. “We’ve validated the savings. We’ve validated the process. We’ve been at this 10 months.”
However, Tony Bagley, chairman of the RSU 20 board of directors, said that the withdrawal efforts are taking a toll on the district.
“It’s very disruptive to everyday business,” he said. “It takes up a lot of time of the board and the superintendent. It costs the RSU a lot of money.”
RSU 20 was created when the former SADs 34 and 56 came together under Maine’s school consolidation law. Frankfort voters already have decided to leave RSU 20 and are working on joining the Hampden, Winterport and Newburgh school district located north of the town. Of the consolidated district’s remaining eight communities, voters in Belfast, Morrill, Swanville, Northport, Searsmont and Belmont all have indicated they want to pursue withdrawal. So far, only Searsport and Stockton Springs have not moved to leave the district — although a decision made last week to repurpose the Stockton Springs Elementary School has left many parents and residents of that community with a sense of frustration.
The 38 first-, second- and third-graders who now attend school in Stockton Springs will be bused to Searsport Elementary School beginning next fall. Broadreach Family and Community Services will run a prekindergarten program for three- and four-year-old children in Stockton Springs Elementary School. According to RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter, this will save the school district about $190,000 and allow the 4-year-old children to have a full-day pre-k program. There will not be a cost to the repurposing of the school, he said.
But Stockton Springs resident, parent and RSU 20 Director Sharon Catus said that the move is unfortunate.
“I live within a small community that has repeatedly been marginalized,” she said. “In the Stockton Springs community, if you were to do a poll, I really think the prevailing feeling would be a sense of loss. This is sort of the last stand for the community.”
Catus did not support the board’s majority decision to repurpose the school, adding that Stockton Springs pays more than $2.1 million each year for RSU 20 to educate its 143 students. In the 2012-2013 school year, the district’s total budget was $33.3 million.
“Wouldn’t you want a school in your community?” she asked. “The children of our town are a minority, really, and becoming more and more of a minority, because we have less and less to offer.”
Meanwhile, Carpenter said that the board members and administration are working on the budget for the next school year while they wait for the withdrawal proposals to come in from the six communities. So far, the RSU 20 board has received a completed proposal only from the city of Belfast. The directors could vote as early as Tuesday on whether to accept that proposal, he said.
Sanders said he hopes that voters from the six communities will be able to decide in June if they want to officially withdraw from the district. If they do, they will be asked in November whether to re-form into a school administrative district, which he expects will look a lot like the former SAD 34. The earliest that the re-formed district could be created is July 1, 2014.
“The transition is back to what we were,” he said. “Nothing would change. We don’t have to do anything. All we have to do is revert to what we were three years ago. It’s two school districts with a shared superintendent right now.”
He said the withdrawal committees have verified they would have saved an estimated $575,000 this year alone if the six towns already had left RSU 20. Belfast would have saved $322,000 of that sum.
Sanders disagrees with some in the communities who have said that the reason to split the unified district is the difference in school cultures between the former SADs 34 and 56.
“The reasons have little to nothing to do with culture, I believe,” he said. “If we withdraw, we control our own destiny. We harness our own finances in the six towns.”
But the cost-savings projections behind the withdrawal efforts may not be reliable, according to Bagley.
“It’s all built on projection,” he said, adding that precipitous revenue cuts from federal and state governments have meant that totaling up the district’s budget has been both painful and difficult. “Will there be a savings? I don’t think anybody can project that. I really don’t.”