Withdrawal woes plague Belfast area schools

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff
Posted June 14, 2013, at 6:38 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — Even though the efforts of six towns to withdraw from Regional School Unit 20 failed Tuesday when not enough voters came to the polls, withdrawal activists have not given up on their bid.

Only Morrill and Searsmont were able to meet the number of ballots required by state law governing school district withdrawal. Belfast, Belmont, Northport and Swanville fell short of the number, which was set at 50 percent of the voters who cast a ballot in the last gubernatorial election.

But well over 60 percent of voters in all the towns supported withdrawing from the eight-town district, which also includes Stockton Springs and Searsport.

Had withdrawal been approved at the ballots, the six towns — which formed the former School Administrative District 34 — would join forces to reform that district.

Because of the high percentage of voters in those six towns who favored the change, state law allows for an immediate renewal of efforts to withdraw. If less than 45 percent of ballots cast had been in favor of withdrawal, the towns would have had to wait two years before trying again to separate from the district, according to Jim Rier of the Maine Department of Education.

“They won’t be limited in how quickly they can start over,” he said Friday.

However, the towns must follow the same process as they had previously done in order to get the referendum on the November ballot. That includes having a petition in favor of withdrawal that’s signed by 10 percent of voters, getting on the ballot and renegotiating their agreement with the RSU.

“I wouldn’t be very confident if they’d be able to accomplish all of that between now and the November vote,” he said.

But Eric Sanders, a Belfast City Councilor who served on the city’s withdrawal committee, said that he is.

“Something’s got to give,” he said. “It looks to me like re-petitioning is a very viable option.”

He said that the legal groundwork already has been laid out. The city of Belfast earlier this year allotted $50,000 towards withdrawal, and so far about $20,000 of that has been spent on legal fees and advertising, according to an official at Belfast City Hall.

Rier said that over the last year and a half, about 17 communities in the state have attempted to withdraw from their school districts. In the past, a stiff financial penalty was levied on towns that wanted to withdraw but that fine has been eliminated, he said. Six of those towns are located in the Belfast area, which is unique because one municipality has paid the legal and other bills for withdrawal.

Rier said that he thinks that efforts to withdraw will likely cost upward of $30,000, with some cases costing much more. The Regional School Units also must pay some legal fees, he said.

To Sanders, it is simply time to make the change, adding that the RSU 20 school budget was voted down while withdrawal was supported. All the towns, including Searsport and Stockton Springs, vote on the budget.

Parents were upset to read in the BDN this week that RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter believes that money was added back to the proposed school budget in a bid to bring more people to the polls.

“I and many parents I know were offended — and totally confused — by why this school board, and this superintendent, don’t seem to be able to be on the same page as the parents,” Sanders said. “I think they could creatively make some decisions, and should have … to figure out how not to cut stuff and not carry a bloated administration.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/06/14/news/midcoast/withdrawal-woes-plague-belfast-area-schools/ printed on September 19, 2014