Belfast-area RSU withdrawal efforts continue, spurring more vocal pushback

Posted July 23, 2013, at 3:10 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — Despite a failure at the polls in June, efforts from some Regional School Unit 20 communities to leave the consolidated district are continuing.

“I view the RSU 20’s eight towns as a dysfunctional, failed entity,” Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley said Tuesday. “I’m looking for alternatives.”

The school district is made up of the communities of Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsport, Searsmont, Stockton Springs and Swanville.

In Belfast, advocates of leaving the district have succeeded in getting enough signatures on a petition asking city voters to decide, again, whether they support the idea of withdrawal. Belfast residents will be asked to vote by ballot on Tuesday, Aug. 20. If a majority of voters want to proceed with leaving the embattled school district, the city will create a committee to make a plan for withdrawal.

If this all sounds a bit familiar, it’s because residents originally voted on the same question in June of last year, according to Belfast City Councilor Eric Sanders, who was chosen to be on the withdrawal committee.

“It’s a repeat of what happened last June,” he said Tuesday.

However, some district residents are becoming more vocal about sharing an opposite viewpoint, including Chip Curry of Belfast.

“We are opposed to utilizing the withdrawal process to dissolve the district,” he told Belfast city councilors last week in their regular meeting. “However, we by no means support maintaining the status quo. Our schools are facing significant challenges — both internal and external — and we feel we need to move ahead with all speed to address them.”

He requested that the city stop using public funds to support a “political campaign designed to influence the outcome of the withdrawal vote.”

Earlier this year, the city of Belfast allotted $50,000 toward withdrawal. By June, about $20,000 of that had been spent on legal fees and advertising.

Curry asked the city for an independent analysis of the financial and educational effects of dissolving the school district.

“Such an analysis could answer very basic questions that voters really need to understand, such as how will this affect the quality of education for our children? How will this impact our taxes down the road? What will happen to the children of the towns not included in the new district? How will this impact the economic development possibilities of our region?” he asked the councilors.

Plans to withdraw made by six of the district’s eight communities took a detour last month. Although a solid majority of voters in Morrill, Searsmont, Belfast, Belmont, Northport and Swanville who came to the polls in June supported withdrawing from the district and reforming the former School Administrative District 34, only Morrill and Searsmont had a high enough voter turnout to meet the requirement of the state law governing school district withdrawal. That law requires a turnout of 50 percent of the voters who cast a ballot in the last gubernatorial election.

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