BELFAST, Maine — Regional School Unit 20, the beleaguered Belfast-area district from which each of the member communities is actively working to withdraw, will look very different on July 1.
That’s because voters in the five towns of Belfast, Belmont, Searsmont, Swanville and Morrill decided on Election Day to withdraw and form a new school district together. Voters in Northport also resoundingly chose to form a municipal school system on their own. That leaves only Stockton Springs and Searsport, which together will make up RSU 20.
RSU 20 has been described as a “forced marriage,” bringing together former SAD 34 and SAD 56 after the state passed the 2008 school consolidation law. The union, and the dissolution of that union, have been notable for negative rhetoric about education and money, as well as for what many have called a tense or even toxic environment on the school board.
“This was a really difficult process, from the beginning of RSU 20 to Tuesday’s vote,” Mike Hurley, Belfast City Councilor and withdrawal proponent, said Wednesday morning. “I’m hopeful that the five towns together are going to work to create something good and new.”
In order for the five towns to form the new district, voters in each community needed to support the decision and at least 50 percent of the people who voted in the 2010 election needed to come to the polls. Although the vote was close in Belmont, where withdrawal supporters squeaked by 229 to 194, the threshold was met, according to Kristin Collins, attorney for the withdrawal committee in those towns and in Northport.
Now, the work begins to create the new district, she said. The town clerks will need to notify the Maine Department of Education that the communities voted to withdraw, the towns will need to start a search for a new superintendent and they will have to begin identifying potential school board candidates.
“Today I’ll start coordinating those efforts,” Collins said Wednesday.
In Northport, residents will need to elect a new school board and are likely to enter into an agreement with School Union 69 in Appleton, Hope and Lincolnville to share some costs, she said.
Sharon Catus, an RSU 20 director from Stockton Springs, said Wednesday that she has mixed feelings about the withdrawal decisions.
“It disheartens me that we couldn’t all work this out, that we couldn’t play nice,” she said. “I feel like the ones who pay the price for that are the kids. But when it comes down to it, the atmosphere has been toxic for so long. We can’t exist in a union with Belfast, because ultimately they don’t want us. They haven’t ever wanted us, and they weren’t going to take no for an answer. They were either going to close our schools down, or withdraw.”
Hurley said he hopes that the new school district will be more inclusive, and suggested renaming the high school something other than Belfast Area High School.
“Something that includes all five towns,” he said. “The sad thing about this is that it could have been avoided somehow, the RSU breakup, but the board and the administration never addressed the issues. In the future, who knows? I think we’re going to see Searsport kids at Belfast high school within two years.”
“In my opinion, Belfast’s hope has always been that they would get our money, not really our kids,” she said. “I would doubt that we would tuition our children to Belfast. I think this school can go it alone. This community is stronger than they’re predicting.”