BELFAST, Maine — City officials seeking independent information about financial and educational effects of withdrawing from the embattled Regional School District 20 decided on Tuesday night to spend up to $25,000 toward that goal.
The money will pay for a Portland consultant firm to estimate mock budgets for the next school year for several possible school organizational configurations, to estimate likely costs of withdrawing from RSU 20, and to develop data and conclusions to assist in planning whatever new school unit emerges, among other tasks.
“It is darn near impossible to predict with 100 percent accuracy the future,” City Manager Joe Slocum said during the regular city council meeting. “You have to spend lots of money and lots of time making the best guess you can.”
Belfast is currently making its second attempt to withdraw from the district, formed after the state’s controversial school reorganization law was passed in 2008. Currently, each of the eight member communities are making separate efforts to withdraw from RSU 20, which also includes Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Swanville.
Charles Lawton of Planning Decisions, Inc., made a presentation last week to the city council about what his company likely could do for Belfast as the community seeks to pin down more concrete financial data about education. The firm will build on the work that already was done in the first withdrawal effort, made last year, as it estimates budgets for scenarios that include:
• Belfast as a separate municipal school unit, with tuitioned middle and high school students from Belfast, Searsmont and Morrill and tuitioned high school students from Northport.
• That configuration plus tuitioned students from Swanville.
• A new K-12 school district made up of Belfast, Belmont, Searsmont and Morrill plus tuitioned Northport high school students.
• A new K-12 district made up of the communities of the former SAD 34 — Belfast, Belmont, Searsmont, Morrill, Swanville and Northport.
The Portland company would review current RSU 20 enrollment, budget and program data and meet with city and school district officials in order to estimate what the 2014 education costs would have been under each scenario. After that, Lawton and others would work with Maine State Department of Education officials to estimate costs for the 2015 fiscal year, then create a summary of the enrollment, the state allocation, the local tax cost and more for each of the options. The company also would make a 10-year school enrollment projection based on demographic and economic variables and estimate likely future state valuations for the included communities.
“My sense is that because this is the second go around with withdrawal committees, we will not be totally reinventing the wheel,” Councilor Mary Mortier said during the discussion.
Councilor Eric Sanders agreed.
“There was no path in the forest last year,” he said. “We now have a path.”
In other news, the council voted to adopt a zoning amendment that would allow some manufacturers and distributors in the Belfast Business Park to operate a restaurant as an accessory use. The change was spurred by Maine Maritime Products’ request last fall to add a takeout window to its existing location in the business park.
They also amended the city ordinances to allow the construction of marine structures to within 25 feet of the navigable channel, and voted unanimously to spend as much as $16,000 for a new power lift stretcher for the city’s new ambulance.
“We have people that we lift who are 450 pounds or more,” Slocum told the council.