Withdrawal negotiations for Belfast-area school district raise more questions

Posted July 18, 2014, at 3:15 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — All eight member communities are trying to withdraw from Regional School Unit 20, and six of them got a lot closer to that goal this week.

The regional school district’s board members voted in a special meeting Thursday night to approve the withdrawal plans for six of the communities — Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont and Swanville — according to Kristin Collins, an attorney who has been acting as the de facto coordinator for those towns.

Those towns comprised SAD 34, the former school district that merged with the former SAD 56 after the 2008 school consolidation law passed.

It is the second withdrawal effort for the former SAD 34 communities, after the first one failed at the ballot last November.

Collins said Friday that Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Searsmont and Swanville are following the same essential withdrawal plan that was created last year.

“If all five towns don’t vote to withdraw and don’t structure into a new RSU, the withdrawal won’t occur,” she said.

Northport, however, is working to contract with School Union 69, she said.

Meanwhile, Stockton Springs and Searsport, the two remaining RSU 20 communities, have not moved forward with their own withdrawal plans, according to Collins, so board members decided to go ahead and vote on the towns that were ready.

The situation is complicated, she said.

Efforts Friday to reach RSU 20 board chairman Tony Bagley of Searsport were unsuccessful.

According to Collins, three members from each approved withdrawing town will serve on a reformation planning committee. That group will meet during August to develop and finalize a reformation plan. Once the plan has been developed, each withdrawing town will decide whether or not to approve it.

“A lot of the people working on this aren’t necessarily pro-withdrawal,” Collins said. “They’re pro looking into it. People are happy the negotiations are progressing.”

Preliminary reports issued by a Portland consulting firm hired earlier this year by Belfast to estimate mock budgets for several possible school organizational configurations show that there’s not an easy solution, Collins said.

If Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Searsmont and Swanville formed a new RSU, it would save them nearly $1 million compared to an alternative of the current RSU 20 minus Northport, she said. But if Northport doesn’t withdraw from the district, a five-town plan might cost more.

“Northport’s really critical,” Collins said. “Also critical is how much money the state will pay. The big, big variable is the state’s contribution, as it always is. It’s going to be hard for the voters to evaluate just on cost. Nobody will know for sure what it will cost or save.”

 

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