Board votes to close Frankfort school, approve withdrawal agreementPublic hearing set for Sept. 19
Searsport — Directors made two decisions Tuesday, Aug. 28, relating to the Frankfort withdrawal effort — one to start the process of closing Frankfort Elementary School and another to advance the withdrawal process on to the next step.
Both decisions followed a fair amount of discussion, some of which occurred prior to the start of the formal meeting. Members of the Frankfort Withdrawal Committee called an emergency meeting that took place about 90 minutes before the regular board meeting started. At that time committee chairman Gabe Baker spoke to portions of the document regarding the school closure and the town's potential responsibility to fulfill terms of existing teacher contracts in some cases.
Baker said he is concerned that the town may be held financially responsible if, for example, the board voted to close the school prior to the proposed effective date of the town's withdrawal from Regional School Unit 20 — the plan lists an effective date of June 30, 2013. In that scenario, Baker said the town should not be held liable because "you've closed the school and we've withdrawn."
If residents vote in favor of withdrawal but the school remains open, Baker said language in the agreement — which was drafted with the assistance of the committee's lawyer, John Carver, and RSU 20 attorneys with Drummond and Woodsum — suggests the town may have some financial responsibility to teachers working under the former SAD 56 contract who may get bumped from their positions by Frankfort staff with more seniority.
Baker said in that instance, if the district fails to give teachers who are losing their positions 90 days notice, the town should not be held liable for fulfilling the terms of those teacher contracts.
Additionally, Baker asked that the board put off its decision to close the Frankfort school until after the town makes its decision on whether to withdraw Tuesday, Nov. 6.
"That facility may be an asset to you should we not withdraw," said Baker.
Baker echoed those same concerns during the regular board meeting, and stated despite the concerns, the committee would sign the agreement because of the time constraints involved with getting the withdrawal question to voters in November.
RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter said it is necessary for the board to begin the process of closing the Frankfort school because the RSU would still be responsible for the building even if Frankfort residents opted to withdraw. By starting the process of closing the school now, Carpenter said, the district would have the time to submit the necessary paperwork to the state Department of Education that explains the rationale for the closure. When and if the state lends approval for the closure, Frankfort residents must then vote to formally close the school.
"When we put forward the referendum for withdrawal, we can also provide them with the article to close the school," said Carpenter.
Carpenter said the school closure "is not a withdrawal issue" but is instead intended to create a cleaner transition for the town and RSU 20 when Frankfort students begin the move over to RSU 22 schools.
"The withdrawal will carry on whether we close the school or not," said Carpenter.
But there would no longer be any students in the school, and as long as the RSU is responsible for the building, Carpenter said the district cannot turn the school over to the town without formally closing it.
Directors Stephen Hopkins and Valerie Mank each asked whether the board could reverse its decision to close the school should Frankfort residents vote against the withdrawal, and Carpenter said that was an option.
"All we're doing is giving back to Frankfort, through the legal process, their school," said Carpenter.
Director Denise Dakin said she has never believed Frankfort should become a part of RSU 22.
"I believe you belong in this RSU," she told Baker and his fellow withdrawal committee member Allan Gordon.
Director and Frankfort resident Eric Carter said the move to withdraw had more to do with geography than nothing to do with the quality of RSU 20, noting Winterport schools are typically much closer to Frankfort families than are Searsport schools.
Gordon offered a similar sentiment during the withdrawal committee meeting earlier in the evening.
"It isn't based on any dissatisfaction with personnel," said Gordon. "... It was a business decision."
In addition to the votes to close FES and to authorize RSU 20 Board Chairman Tony Bagley to send the signed withdrawal plan to the state Department of Education, members of the committee agreed to hold a public hearing on the withdrawal plan Wednesday, Sept. 19 at 6 p.m. The hearing will take place at the FES gym.