BELFAST, Maine — This spring, bold red signs have taken up residence on lawns around six towns in Waldo County, urging people to come to the polls June 11 to make an important decision about local schools.
The vote will be the culmination of months of work on the part of many who believe that it is time for the state-mandated consolidation of two former school districts into Regional School Unit 20 to be dissolved.
They would like the communities of Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont and Swanville to withdraw from their forced 2008 union with Stockton Springs and Searsport and become the former SAD 34. The six towns are among 38 in Maine attempting to leave their consolidated school units.
A successful withdrawal wouldn’t be easy, with state law requiring total voter turnout to exceed 50 percent of the people who voted in the 2010 gubernatorial election. And it would be controversial, with many residents of the RSU 20 towns questioning whether upturning the school administrative structure again would be helpful for students or other residents.
But proponents say that it would be financially worthwhile. Cost savings for the coming year’s school budget is calculated at around $1.3 million if the six towns withdraw and reform a unified district.
“If we can find savings in deconsolidation, then we have more dollars available,” Eric Sanders, a Belfast City Councilor who is chairman of the city’s withdrawal committee, said last week at an informational meeting. “Dollars equal opportunity in a school district.”
The kind of savings that advocates believe would be possible through withdrawal matters in the currently difficult climate for school funding.
Declining student enrollment and reduced state and federal cash for education, among other concerns, mean that districts such as RSU 20 must make hard decisions. The school district is facing a $3.8 million budget shortfall, part of which is caused by the town of Frankfort’s decision to withdraw from RSU 20 and take its state subsidies north to SAD 22.
The budget that the RSU 20 directors approved late last month includes a roughly 13 percent increase in local property tax assessments for schools despite cuts that total $1.7 million.
Yet the potential savings is not the only concern, say those opposed to breaking up the school district.
“I’m skeptical of withdrawal,” Alan Wood, an RSU 20 director from Belfast, said Thursday. “If you withdraw, you set up a completely new district. This will take a lot of time and a lot of energy. To me, in order to do something like this, it has to really show that this is going to be an improvement over the next 30 years. The figures to me don’t show that.”
He also said that Searsport District High School and Searsport District Middle School are examples of well-run schools, with a single bus run, full classes and a reputation for having developed standards-based education — a statewide educational priority right now.
“I just feel the schooling system is being run very, very well,” Wood said.
But those who support withdrawal said at last week’s informational meeting at the Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast that Belfast Area High School is also well run, and will be even better with more local control, thanks to deconsolidation.
Some at that meeting, which attracted about 50 attendees, spoke of a perceived difference in school culture between the former SAD 34 towns and Stockton and Searsport.
“The cultures are different. That’s important for a school district,” Chuck Hamm, a BAHS art teacher, said. “[Belfast Area High School] works. It works with the students. It works with the staff. I don’t know why it works, but it does.”
Withdrawal advocates are trying to get as many people to the polls as possible. To meet state requirements, a total of 1,543 votes must be cast in Belfast, 209 in Belmont, 204 in Morrill, 389 in Northport, 301 in Searsmont and 268 in Swanville.
If voters refuse withdrawal, state law prevents any further effort to withdraw for two years and the towns will remain in RSU 20. If all six towns vote in favor of withdrawing, a new committee will be appointed to form the new school unit.
Sanders said withdrawal advocates’ efforts have been met without enthusiasm by RSU 20 officials and many school board members, he said.
“The withdrawal committee felt about as welcome as a dead cat at a dance party,” Sanders said, adding that the stakes for residents are high. “If we don’t withdraw, get ready to consolidate. That’s the message I want to portray. I am thrilled that withdrawal is going to the voters — it’s high time.”