BELFAST, Maine — Six Waldo County communities are marking the back-to-school season with forward motion in their efforts to withdraw from Regional School Unit 20.
The Maine Department of Education recently has approved separate withdrawal plans for Northport and for the five towns that are working to form a new RSU — Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Searsmont and Swanville. Residents from those communities had the opportunity this week to review the withdrawal agreements, with the proposed five-town district’s meeting to be held at 7 p.m., Sept. 4, at Belfast Area High School.
The ultimate goal, according to Belfast City Attorney Kristin Collins, is for voters in these communities to decide on Election Day whether they want to withdraw from RSU 20 and whether they accept the reorganization plan. RSU 20 in its current state includes those six communities, along with Stockton Springs and Searsport, both of which also have initiated withdrawal plans of their own — although those two towns have not progressed as far as the other six towns have.
Last year, withdrawal efforts by the former SAD 34 communities — Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Searsmont, Swanville and Northport — were approved by a majority of voters in Belfast and several of the other towns. But low voter turnout meant that the efforts failed, because at least half of the residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election were required to cast ballots in order for the withdrawal vote to count. Although the turnout threshold didn’t get met in 2013, Collins said she is confident it will be met this Election Day.
“But there’s still the matter of educating voters on what it’s all about,” she said.
If the new five-town RSU is formed, it will look like the former SAD 34, minus Northport, which is working to contract with School Union 69.
“Anybody would feel pretty confident that at least in the first year, 2015, everything would stay pretty much the same in the schools,” Collins said.
The new board of directors, however, would be much smaller than the 18-member RSU 20 board. She said that there would be nine directors in total, and according to a state formula, five seats would belong to Belfast because it has a larger population. The other communities would get one director each.
“I definitely think that a smaller board would be able to get more accomplished, or at least that’s the hope,” Collins said. “The other thing is that these towns have a history of working together.”
A major reason why withdrawal supporters would like to leave the district is that they feel the move would provide more local control of spiraling costs for education, and hopefully also result in fiscal savings. But Charles Lawton of Planning Decisions Inc., a school consultant hired to look into potential cost savings, found that it is “almost impossible to estimate what the true costs will be,” Collins said.
“His number one point is that there are so many variables with school funding,” she said.
He used a copy of the 2014 budget and put it through various funding permutations, and did find that if Northport is the only town to leave RSU 20, the costs for the remaining towns go up “pretty substantially,” Collins said. The costs also will go up if the new five-town RSU is created, but to a lesser extent, she said.