Belfast committee talks creating four town withdrawal planCity may look to vote in June on leaving RSU 20
Belfast — The Belfast withdrawal committee is asking the towns of Belmont, Morrill and Searsmont to join the city to create a four-town district that could include Northport and Swanville if those two municipalities wish to join.
Currently, all eight member towns, Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Swanville, in Regional School Unit 20 are looking at leaving the district. So far, Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport and Searsmont have voted to leave RSU 20 and have formed withdrawal committees.
Swanville is scheduled to vote on pursuing withdrawal on Jan. 28, while Searsport and Stockton Springs have recently submitted the necessary signatures to allow town officials to schedule a vote asking residents if they want to withdraw from RSU 20.
Speaking to committee members and members of the public during a meeting Wednesday, Jan. 15, Eric Sanders, Belfast withdrawal committee chairman, suggested a four-town withdrawal plan was the most viable option.
He also questioned how RSU 20 can move forward with any of its consolidation plans, which would involve closing schools in the district, when every member town is attempting to withdraw.
Alan Wood, who serves on the RSU 20 school board and on the withdrawal committee, said that while consolidation could work, he didn't believe there would be enough support among board members to make it happen.
“I don't see any of the consolidation happening,” he said.
Sanders said he favored the four town district idea, with the option to include Northport and Swanville, and suggested the committees should push to draft a withdrawal plan as quickly as possible.
“I'm a little leery of dragging this [withdrawal] on ad nauseum,” Sanders said.
In regards to the withdrawal plan, Belfast attorney Kristin Collins asked Sanders if he envisioned the plan being identical to the one that was created during the first attempt at withdrawal last year. Sanders responded by saying the plans could be similar, but he did not believe they needed to be identical.
City Councilor Mike Hurley questioned Collins about whether state lawmakers would get involved to address all of the RSU 20 towns' desire to leave the district. Collins said she believed the towns could get together to draft a piece of legislation that would effectively dissolve RSU 20.
She explained the benefit of introducing such legislation would be that the towns could hold one regional vote to determine if residents want to dissolve the district, and that the individual withdrawal efforts could still proceed at the same time in case the vote is against dissolving RSU 20.
Hurley commented that a vote to dissolve the district made sense.
“It would stop all this division,” he said.
As discussion continued, questions were asked regarding the timing of withdrawal and when it could take effect.
Collins said the earliest the withdrawal could take effect would be in 2015, but in order to do so, a vote to leave the district would have to occur earlier than November 2014.
She suggested holding a vote to withdraw from RSU 20 in June 2014, followed by a second vote in November 2014 asking the towns to reform as a new district, which would take effect July 1, 2015.
Belfast withdrawal committee member Wayne Corey said he supported the idea pursuing a four-town district plan, but stated the “facts and figures” of such a plan need to be presented.
City Manager Joseph Slocum attended a portion of Wednesday's meeting and said the city crafted a Request for Proposals that received two responses regarding the scope of an independent audit to look at the impact of withdrawal.
The two firms that responded to the city's RFP, both based in Portland, gave cost estimates to complete the audit in the range of $20,000 to $70,000.
Sanders said the audit could look at the costs or savings associated with the four-town district plan, as well as the costs or savings if Northport and Swanville join with Belfast, Belmont, Morrill and Searsmont.
Collins commented that Belmont's withdrawal committee has indicated it will not take any action until an independent audit is completed.
Belfast withdrawal committee members asked Sandy Wallace, who serves on Northport's withdrawal committee, if the town would consider joining with Belfast, Belmont, Morrill and Searsmont. Stating she could only speak for herself, Wallace said there is “a lot of excitement” in the town about the possibility Northport could operate its own kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school.
Currently, she explained Northport is looking at working with School Union 69, which includes the towns of Hope, Appleton and Lincolnville, to share superintendent services. The town would also look at tuitioning its high school students to Belfast, Wallace said.
Committee members then debated the best way to proceed with a plan with Corey expressing a concern that if the withdrawal agreements bind the towns to each other, then if one town is unable to garner enough votes to leave RSU 20, it could jeopardize the effort for everyone.
Sanders disagreed and said he believes bringing the towns together will present a unified front that will resonate more with people, as opposed to each town going it alone.
He then said he would like to make a decision about how Belfast will proceed with its withdrawal efforts in the near future, and asked that the withdrawal committees in the other towns discuss how they would like to proceed as well.
Ben Holbrook is a reporter for The Republican Journal covering general news.
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