HAMPDEN, Maine — With two big referendum dates looming on the calendar, an effort that has been at least two or more than 50 years in the making, may finally be nearing fruition.
Frankfort residents will vote on Thursday, March 28 on whether their town joins Hampden, Winterport and Newburgh as members of SAD 22. If voters approve that move, the next big date is Tuesday, April 9, when voters in the current SAD 22 member towns will vote on whether to approve Frankfort’s inclusion into a school administrative district.
“I’m very excited about it,” Emil Genest, SAD 22’s assistant superintendent for schools, said.
The school department and the towns affected have held a total of six public meetings or presentations over the last few months, which an estimated 300 people have attended in all. The purpose of these meetings was to educate citizens and students as well as to answer questions and address any concerns they have with the expansion, which would be SAD 22’s first since 1970.
“It makes sense,” SAD 22 Board Vice Chairwoman Martha Harris said. “I live in Winterport. It’s a logical geographic fit and social fit too. It really is a perfect marriage.”
Harris said the most-often-voiced issues concern potential overcrowding and student-to-teacher ratios.
“They have done their homework, but this isn’t something we’d be doing if we thought it would negatively affect the high-quality education this district provides,” Harris said. “And the goal is to maintain communities, not disrupt them. We think this not only maintains ours, it enhances it.”
Kelly Bickmore, SAD 22 school board chairwoman, said this latest effort (Frankfort citizens voted not to join in 1959) began in earnest more than two years ago when Frankfort officials expressed a desire to change membership from RSU 20 (Belfast-Searsport) to SAD 22.
Frankfort resident Gabriel Baker, who is also chairman of Frankfort’s school system withdrawal committee, said the latest effort resulted in large part from the 2009 passage of Maine’s state school consolidation law. After going from SAD 56 to SAD 34 and then RSU 20, RSU 20 officials have repeatedly proposed closing down the Frankfort school and sending Frankfort students to Searsport, 15 miles away.
“We decided it was more cost effective to absorb Frankfort students into our schools and that it wouldn’t be financially feasible to keep the Frankfort school open,” Bickmore said.
SAD 22 schools are about 10 miles closer than Searsport’s.
Frankfort voters did vote to close the Frankfort Elementary School last November, as well as approving the proposal to join SAD 22, 74 to 26 percent.
Since that time, the SAD 22 school board has unanimously approved accepting Frankfort as a member and has also proposed adding another board seat to represent Frankfort.
“We’ll employ a weighted vote system at board meetings to better represent our membership,” said Bickmore.
Genest, who estimated that SAD’s total enrollment would grow by about 100 students initially and about 175 within two-three years with Frankfort’s addition, said no administrative positions will be added, but “no more than five” teaching positions will be added.
“This is beneficial for everyone concerned,” said Bickmore. “Many of their students already associate with ours and having them all come together also provides a financial benefit for us with four communities sharing the cost. And adding a significant number of students in an era of declining enrollment is a plus, too.”