Reorganization plans for Belfast area schools would create major changes in the district

Posted Oct. 31, 2013, at 5:15 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — It’s all about the dollars, or maybe it’s all about the kids.

Regional School Unit 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter this week has made public seven proposed action plans to reorganize the beleaguered eight-town school district, and the options seem to range from drastic to even more drastic. Citing declining student population and increasing costs, the superintendent has proposed closing at least some of the district’s 11 schools in each proposed plan. They will be discussed by the district’s board of directors beginning at the regular December meeting.

“Something has to be done, that’s the bottom line,” Carpenter said Wednesday. “Same old, same old [is] not going to work.”

He said the residents of the district, which include the communities of Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Swanville, are chafing at their property taxes increasing annually to pay for education. Nearly all of the schools have enrollment well under capacity, including Searsport District High School and Middle School, which has just 315 students out of its designed capacity of 700.

“People cannot stand another two years, or another year, of a 10 percent tax increase. Everything’s on the table,” he said. “Can we still afford these small schools when some of our schools are running at 76 percent and 45 percent capacity? That’s what the board has to decide. My job is to provide them with possible solutions.”

His ideas seem focused on shifting students from smaller to larger schools, with the goals of reducing educational costs per pupil, centralizing services and pulling the district closer to the state’s Essential Programs & Services funding model. That model determines what the state pays for in public schools and how that money is distributed. Most school districts pay over and above the state’s formula to educate their children.

Some of the plans would close several of the smaller elementary schools and bus those students to other communities. One plan would send students from the Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast to join students at Belfast Area High School. Another would close Searsport District High School and Middle School, transporting those students to schools in Belfast. Yet another would turn the high school in Searsport into a magnet school for marine science technology, which ideally would attract students from all over the state.

Disadvantages to the plans include the loss of community schools, increased class sizes, negative impact on the communities, increased travel time for some students, losing the nurturing feeling of smaller elementary schools, and possible negative impacts on the success of middle school students.

“This isn’t something we can come to a quick decision over,” Valerie Mank, a school board director from Searsmont, said Wednesday. “We really need to take a lot of time and talk with members of our community and members of our teaching staff. We didn’t get into this mess overnight, and we’re not going to get out of it in two or three meetings.”

Director Alexa Schweikert of Swanville said that while she understands the need to fill schools to capacity, she’s concerned that all the plans pay too much attention to finances and buildings and not enough to education.

“It’s hard for me to buy into it when I’m not hearing what the educational benefits would be,” she said. “Nobody’s talking about education. It’s just taxes, and money. … I think [the plans are] creating a lot of excitement, a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety in the community that is concerned about education.”

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