BELFAST, Maine — The controversial plans to close some of the schools in Regional School Unit 20 as a cost-cutting measure have been taken off the table, after a Tuesday night vote by the district’s board of directors.
The three courses of action under consideration by the school board all would have meant closing some of the divided district’s elementary schools, and two would have shut the doors to Searsport District High School and Searsport District Middle School — ideas that were vehemently opposed by some district residents. Only three directors opposed a motion to shelve for good the plans that were brought forward at the regular school board meeting, which was attended by about 40 members of the public.
“As we’ve been going through this process, there has been a growing awareness that none of the plans have been garnering the kind of support they need to pass,” Director Caitlin Hills of Belfast said Wednesday. “It just wasn’t going to happen. The public was getting all fired up. When people talk about closing schools, parents get upset, and rightly so.”
But some district officials said that doing nothing is not a good option either. Director Stephen Hopkins of Belmont said that the eight-town district has seen diminishing student enrollments and state subsidies for education, as well as increasing property taxes. The district includes Belfast, Belmont, Northport, Searsmont, Swanville, Morrill, Searsport and Stockton Springs. In each community, there is now an active effort to withdraw from the district.
“It’s costing us more per student to educate our kids, the tax rate is going way up and people can’t afford it,” Hopkins said. “I don’t think we should have abandoned the whole thing, the talk about consolidation. The fact that we just walked away from it, I felt was unacceptable. I have a feeling when we have our budget meeting, we’re going to have problems.”
That feeling was seconded by Superintendent Brian Carpenter, who said Wednesday that he’ll show the public the early drafts of the budget for the next fiscal year. He expects that the state will not increase its education subsidy for the district, which currently has a $32 million budget. But he does expect that operational costs, such as for electricity, insurance premiums and No. 2 heating fuel, will go up.
“The question is, where do we go now?” he said. “It looks like we’ll have program cuts and possible teacher cuts, but before I do that, I’m going to put it out to the community.”