All eight RSU 20 towns in Belfast, Searsport area now working on withdrawal

Posted Jan. 13, 2014, at 5:25 p.m.

STOCKTON SPRINGS, Maine — For many months, the majority of communities that belong to Regional School Unit 20 have been trying to leave the beleaguered district.

As of this weekend, all eight member communities are working on withdrawing from the regional school district, after residents from Stockton Springs and Searsport began to gather signatures on a petition that is the first step in the long, state-mandated process. Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont and Swanville already are in various stages of the withdrawal process. In Searsport, petitions circulated all day Sunday already had enough signatures to satisfy the state and on Monday were being validated at the Searsport Town Office.

Lesley Cosmano, a selectman in Stockton Springs, said that her community’s drive to get signatures on the new withdrawal petition came from an impromptu meeting held Saturday in the town office basement. She and other residents are concerned that two of the district’s three proposed money-saving action plans, whittled down from seven, would close the middle school and high school in neighboring Searsport. The Stockton Springs Elementary School this year was repurposed as an early childhood education center, and the community’s own children must be bused to elementary school in Searsport.

“We’re a very, very small coastal town, and for many, many, many years we had our own school. It was a working situation that people were pleased with,” Cosmano said Monday. “If we don’t have a school on this side [of the Passagassawakeag River], property values are going to be affected. … We just don’t feel we have much of a say with how our money is spent.”

She said that Stockton Springs has 151 students attending kindergarten through 12th grade. The town’s property taxpayers are paying about $2.4 million this year to support the schools — or 73 cents of each dollar paid in property taxes. The high price of education and the “animosity” between the former SAD 56 and SAD 34 member communities, which were forced into consolidation after the 2008 state law was passed, have left many people in the district dissatisfied with the status quo.

Sharon Catus, an RSU 20 director from Stockton Springs, said Monday that the idea of shuttering the Searsport schools is disheartening. Her 13-year-old daughter already has endured years of academic upheaval due to the school district’s changes. Last year, Frankfort withdrew from the district and many of her friends left her middle school. When she learned of the possibility the Searsport middle and high schools will be closed, the teen was upset.

“Her knees literally crumbled and she had to sit down,” Catus wrote. “The look of pain that crossed her face was awful.”

But RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter said this week that many residents don’t understand the process of closing schools. The board of directors has to vote by a two-thirds majority for one of the action plans before it will take effect. Then, affected towns have to vote in favor of closing their schools. The board of directors and administration will travel around the communities to explain the three proposed action plans, he said, with the first public forum to be held at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 21, in the Belfast Area High School band room.

“They have to take some kind of action as a region,” Carpenter said, adding that the district’s biggest problem is decreased state revenue for education. “The bottom line is, where are we getting the money from? If you want to keep the little schools open, you’re going to have to pay for it. I don’t think the voters can pay for another 10 percent property tax increase.”

The next regular RSU 20 board of directors meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 14, at the Searsport District High School cafeteria.

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