SEARSPORT, Maine — The eight communities that are part of the soon-to-be much smaller Regional School Unit 20 are figuring out what life will be like after the district’s dissolution.
On the to-do list for Searsport and Stockton Springs, the only RSU 20 member towns that will remain in that district after the break is made final this summer, is searching for a new superintendent. Brian Carpenter, who has served in that position since July 2012, announced this week that he will resign at the end of June when his current contract ends.
“This was not an easy decision for me, as I enjoyed working in and for RSU 20,” he wrote in a letter sent to the board of directors. “However, I need to think of what is to come with the dissolution of the current RSU 20.”
Carpenter’s letter went on to detail some of the positive changes he said had happened during the two and a half years he has been at the helm of the school district, including improving technology capability and having Belfast Area High School continue the move to standards-based education. Nevertheless, his tenure will be marked by the withdrawal process, which culminated with the Election Day decisions by residents in Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont and Swanville to leave the district.
Before Maine’s controversial school consolidation law was passed in 2008, there were two districts along the Waldo County coast: SAD 56, made up of Searsport, Stockton Springs and Frankfort, and SAD 34, with Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont and Swanville. The unification of the two school districts was at times very rocky — including Frankfort’s successful effort to withdraw from the district and a nearly 4-year battle to get a single pay scale for the teacher salaries. The former SAD 56 employees had been paid significantly less than those in former SAD 34 until a contract was finally ratified in early 2013.
“I know each new school administrative unit can be great,” the outgoing superintendent wrote in his letter, adding that he is aware that some residents criticized his efforts leading the RSU. “You may think or [feel] that I did not care. I do care. I just do not wear my emotions on my sleeve for all to see.”
In the post-withdrawal RSU 20, there will be three new operating units. In Northport, voters decided to create their own municipal school unit, teaching elementary and middle school students at the Edna Drinkwater School and tuitioning the high school students elsewhere. The rest of the withdrawing towns have joined forces to form a new district — RSU 71. Meanwhile, Searsport and Stockton Springs will still operate as RSU 20, though it will look very different than the current configuration, according to Tony Bagley, the school district’s chairman.
Bagley, of Searsport, said that the new version of RSU 20 is to be determined.
“There’s been no decisions made by the remaining members to make decisions about small changes or large changes,” he said Thursday. “The intention of the towns is to continue on the same path we’ve been on. That’s our only option.”
The students from his district will continue to attend schools in the Searsport complex, with pre-kindergarten pupils attending a program in the Stockton Springs Elementary School. The soon-to-be two-town district will struggle with low student enrollment, as have districts all around the state, Bagley said. Right now, there are just 330 students enrolled in the Searsport District High School and Middle School, which has a designed capacity of 700. The schools were rebuilt and massively renovated in 2002, and the district is continuing to pay down debt service on the new complex.
School withdrawal should not greatly affect the enrollment at the Searsport complex, but may affect the finances of the much-smaller RSU 20. Teachers and staff now are paid more than they were before school consolidation, and the former SAD 56 towns are without Frankfort, which brought in an estimated $1.4 million in state school subsidies. Last spring, former Stockton Springs town manager Richard Couch said residents there already were struggling to pay annually increasing costs for RSU 20, which then accounted for 75 percent of the property tax bill.
According to Bagley, it is too early to predict the financial impact of the change to RSU 20 to the district’s taxpayers. He said that numbers will become more clear as the district starts to work on its budget for the next fiscal year, and he is remaining optimistic. Residents of the district are invited to a community meeting called “Focus on the Future — RSU 20,” to be held at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 15, at the Searsport District Middle School cafeteria.
“I’m nothing but positive,” Bagley said. “We’re not the smallest school in the state. There’s no reason why the two towns can’t survive together.”
Drexell White, a selectman from Northport, said that it’s good for all the towns in the district to move past the often-contentious withdrawal process and figure out their different futures.
“It’s been tough on everybody,” he said. “Everybody’s got their challenges. It’s nice to have that part of it behind us and concentrate on trying to build something — rather than the demolition phase.”