BELFAST, Maine — Regional School Unit 20 has eight member towns, two high schools, two middle schools, several elementary schools and one official board of directors.
Now, it also has a “think tank” composed of residents concerned about education quality, high costs for schools and not having a place at the table when it comes to making decisions about the district. The nine-member panel convened last week in Belfast to hold a long discussion about the district’s problems — and possible solutions.
Last year, the town of Frankfort completed the lengthy process to withdraw from the district and join RSU 22 to the north. Of the remaining communities, Belfast, Northport, Searsmont, Belmont, Morrill and Swanville — the former SAD 34 members — also are making efforts to withdraw. Northport officials last week approached the board of School Union 69 to see if their town can join Lincolnville, Hope and Appleton if it leaves RSU 20. The school board has approved the concept, according to Union 69 Superintendent Nancy Weed.
Only Stockton Springs and Searsport, part of the former SAD 56, are not trying to leave the consolidated school district.
Even some proponents of withdrawal said that it seemed worthwhile to look for ways to creatively keep the beleaguered district together. Carol Robbins of Searsmont, a former SAD 34 superintendent who is on the withdrawal committee for her town, said that she thought it was a “wonderful idea” to have an objective environment to seek ways to keep RSU 20 intact.
“It’s absent from the politics and some of the other stuff that goes on in school boards,” she said. “You’re there because you’re a concerned citizen.”
Acrimonious budget hearings and RSU 20 board of directors meetings have plagued the district in recent years, leading to frustration among some residents — including Jeff Davis, a commercial electrician from Stockton Springs who joined the think tank when Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley asked if he would.
“I got involved because of taxes,” he said. “We’ve wasted so much money. There are so many hard feelings … when you try to use this district as a piece of pie — what we can get here, what we can get there, you waste your money.”
Hurley, the representative from Belfast, said that he believes RSU 20 is challenged by the large size of the district, by too many schools, by a low student population and by high costs that “deeply impact” programs.
“Why is a city councilor and a guy with no kids concerned about this?” he asked this week referring to himself. “Because it’s an economic development issue for our towns. We need to solve this problem, now.”
He said he understands that smaller towns do not want to lose their community elementary schools, but from his perspective as a Belfast resident, the current model is unsustainable.
“What’s going to happen next? There’s going to have to be some school closures, somewhere down the line,” he posited. “If you like your schools, you can keep them — if you’re going to pay for them. We can’t keep every school in the district open if Belfast is going to pay the lion’s share.”
Hurley said that the school union formed by the nearby towns of Lincolnville, Appleton and Hope is a “great model” for RSU 20. Those towns own their three community elementary schools, rather than the district.
“I hope that’s where we’re headed,” he said.
Robbins said she’s eager to find solutions to the district’s problems in part because she’s a lifelong educator — and also because her grandson already has a bus ride that lasts more than an hour to get from his home in Searsmont to Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast. If the district consolidates down to one middle school in Searsport, which is one plan the board of directors has considered, that ride would be made even longer.
“That would have an adverse affect. Not because it’s Searsport, but because they’d be three hours on the bus each day,” she said.
The ad hoc think tank is lacking a representative from Searsport, and other members said they hope someone will step forward soon. Organizers are planning to meet again, Hurley said, and eventually expect to generate a list of recommendations for the RSU 20 board of directors.