Belfast withdrawal effort draws skepticism from board
Belfast — Some members of the RSU 20 Board of Directors indicated during the regular directors' meeting at Belfast Area High School Tuesday, Oct. 9, that they have reservations about the ongoing effort by six former SAD 34 towns to withdraw from RSU 20.
At the meeting, Belfast Withdrawal Committee member Susan Woods and committee attorney Kristin Collins said the committee has put together a draft that it hoped to have approved at its meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 10. The idea, Collins said, is to create a new district consisting of the six former SAD 34 towns which would possibly share central office services, including the superintendent, for the first year of operation.
"All real estate and personal property formerly held by SAD 34 would go with the new unit," said Collins.
All property of the former SAD 56 would remain with the RSU, Collins said.
The aim is to have residents of the former SAD 34 towns vote on the withdrawal plans in the spring and to start up the new school unit July 1, 2013. High school students served by the new unit would have the right to remain at their school until they graduate, Collins said, and younger students would be permitted to continue attending their former schools for the first year of the withdrawal process.
Director Alan Wood asked Collins and Woods how they know the figures used in the draft plan are accurate.
"The citizens are going to decide based on that," said Wood.
"Anything we're dealing with is going to be an estimation, of course," said Collins.
Collins said the committee has the benefit of having former RSU 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux as a consultant, and noted that Woods has an accounting background. Woods said the figures used in the draft plan are based on the number of staff members in the former SAD 34 versus the former SAD 56, and that the committee is considering using an independent consultant to ensure that the numbers are "as accurate as possible."
"We tend to be conservative, using the higher numbers," said Woods.
RSU 20 Board Chairman Tony Bagley suggested that costs might not be the biggest issue when it comes to arriving at accurate figures.
"When it comes to budget time, it's not the expenditures that are getting us, it's the revenues that are killing us," said Bagley, noting that federal and state subsidies have dwindled significantly in recent years.
"We're going to do a similar report, as best we can, on revenues," said Collins.
Collins also said a contingency clause in the plan voids a withdrawal if municipalities representing at least 85 percent of the total student population in the six towns don't vote to withdraw.
Bagley recalled when the board took flak over the reorganization concept — which involved closing some outlying elementary schools and moving to one middle and high school — that the district pitched as a way to close the budget gap last year. The idea got a cool reception from the public at a series of forums held throughout the district, and Bagley said issues like educational differences and lengthy bus rides for some students were what led to the concept's demise. That said, Bagley criticized the committee for promoting a withdrawal plan that could mean some students would have a long bus ride and be forced to attend school several towns away.
If, for example, residents in Belmont opt not to withdraw and decide to stay in the RSU, children in that town would likely be bused to Searsport Elementary School in order to attend classes in their own district.
"I cannot fathom the idea of busing a kindergarten student [from Belmont] all the way to Searsport," he said.
"It's up to the parents who are voting on this to decide," said Collins, who noted that if those residents vote "no," their children would be bused to Searsport "as a consequence of the plan." She also said she would "hate to see all this work, all this effort" thrown out in the end.
"To exclude one town, I think, is very unfair to the students," said Bagley. "I would not endorse anything that wasn't 100 percent."
"It's all based on revenues and expenditures, and at the end of the day, how much is needed to make this new unit work," said Collins.
Director Dorothy Odell sought clarification of the risks involved in the withdrawal process.
"So there are two risks. One, that the children might be bused for an unconscionable distance, and two, that a bunch of adults might have wasted their time," said Odell.
While updating the board on a recent meeting about Maine's withdrawal laws that included himself, RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter and Drummond and Woodsum attorney Dick Spencer, Bagley said he was unable to learn much about how best to approach the ongoing process.
"Nobody has the true answers," he said.