Belfast withdrawal update prompts participation questionsCommittee promises draft plan by next week
Searsport — An update from the Belfast Withdrawal Committee at the Regional School Unit 20 Board of Directors meeting Tuesday, Sept. 25, drew questions about the ability of other former SAD 34 towns to participate in the ongoing process of drafting a plan for leaving RSU 20.
Belfast is one of six towns — all of which formerly belonged to SAD 34 — where voters have indicated interest in withdrawing, though Swanville residents must vote on the issue again Tuesday, Oct. 2. State officials ruled the Swanville vote invalid because of improper language on the original ballot.
In addition to Belfast, the towns where voters have approved exploring withdrawal are Morrill, Northport, Searsmont and Belmont.
Belfast Withdrawal Committee Chairman Eric Sanders told directors they could expect to see a draft withdrawal agreement from the combined town committees by next week.
"Belfast's RSU Withdrawal Committee, members of other communities' committees, and some interested residents attended a meeting on Sept. 10 and discussed whether members of former SAD 34 ... should consider developing a joint plan for withdrawal," stated Sanders. "Morrill's, Searsmont's, and the original Swanville committees have given a firm commitment to proceed and are working closely with Belfast's committee at this time. Northport last week voted unanimously to join into the plan as well. Belmont's committee is in the process of being formed, due to the fact that voters just approved the petition to withdraw on Sept. 4."
Sanders said the aim is to have voters in those towns vote on the joint plan in either March or April of next year.
Sanders' presentation drew criticism from Director Deb Riley of Northport, who sits on the withdrawal committee in her hometown.
Riley said she tried to attend and participate in a Belfast committee meeting Monday night, Sept. 24, but said she was not permitted to participate.
"It's supposed to be an open process," said Riley.
Sanders said the Monday night session was not a formal meeting because it involved the full committee breaking up into subcommittees to work on specific areas of the plan like finances. Because Northport had only recently opted to get on board with drafting a joint plan, Sanders said, it wasn't the right time to bring Northport committee representatives into the process.
"Had [Northport] been there the week before, we would have welcomed your input," said Sanders.
Riley said the numbers associated with the draft plan are an important piece of the study and are of particular interest to people who live in her community.
"So we need to be involved," she said. "...It should have been opened up to let more people from other towns be involved."
After Sanders addressed a few questions about the nature of the Monday night withdrawal meeting, RSU 20 Chairman Tony Bagley told Sanders that even though the gathering involved breaking up into subcommittees, it still constituted a meeting.
"That's supposed to be open to the public," said Bagley.
When Director Orya Shomron asked Sanders to state why withdrawal might benefit Belfast residents, Sanders said he felt some residents were concerned about taxes, while others he has spoken with had concerns about community schools closing.
Later in the meeting, Director Alan Wood said he was concerned about the accuracy of information voters have about what may or may not happen in RSU 20 in the future.
"We're not proposing closing any school right now," said Wood, noting the board vote to close the Frankfort Elementary School was executed because of that town's pending withdrawal from the RSU.
The discussion also included questions concerning the current makeup of the negotiations subcommittee, a group that must meet with representatives of the RSU 20 Board to work out aspects of the withdrawal plan like use of school buildings.
Sanders said the negotiations team was initially formed several weeks ago, when Belfast and Morrill were the two towns committed to creating a joint plan. Three members of the Belfast City Council were appointed to serve at that time — Mike Hurley, Nancy Hamilton and Roger Lee. Members of the Belfast committee made that decision based on the advice of the committee attorney, Kristin Collins, Sanders said.
"We determined, with our attorney, that we should have people on the negotiations committee who were people we knew could do it," said Sanders.
Sanders said now that the other towns exploring withdrawal have committed to partnering with Belfast, the negotiations committee would likely include more representatives from those towns.
"We just would like to limit the size somewhat," said Sanders.
Riley said she wanted to go on record with her concerns about the way the withdrawal discussions are handled going forward because she wanted to make sure each town had a say in the process.
"It feels like Belfast is taking control again, just as it did when SAD 34 was born," she said.
In other withdrawal related news, the board approved the referendum language for the closure of the Frankfort Elementary School, an issue voters in that town will decide at the ballot box Tuesday, Nov. 6. There will be a public hearing regarding the possible school closure Thursday, Oct. 11 at 6 p.m. at FES. Also on Nov. 6, Frankfort residents will decide whether to approve the proposed plan to withdraw from RSU 20.