Editorial — Cui bono?
After several months of meetings the Belfast Withdrawal Committee has come up with a rough draft plan to withdraw from Regional School Unit 20 and re-form School Administrative District 34 with the five other towns from the pre-consolidation district.
The plan presented by the Belfast committee at its Thursday, Oct. 4, meeting estimates that costs for operating a new district are on a par with the pre-consolidation budget. It estimates it could save a little more than $150,000 if the new district can combine its central office with what remains of RSU 20.
The committee estimated the cost of the new district by extracting operating costs for the former SAD 34 schools from the 2012-2013 budget for RSU 20. It estimated expenses relating to transportation, special education, technology and other areas by determining how those costs were allocated among the schools in the district.
The question that immediately springs to mind when reviewing this plan is: How is this different from the current configuration of RSU 20?
Right now RSU 20 is already divided between former SAD 34 towns and former SAD 56 towns. The students educated in those two groups of towns never attend the same school. They have their own elementary schools, middle schools and even high schools. They don't share a bus garage or a mascot, and aren't part of the same sports division. After two years of negotiations, the teachers are still working under two separate contracts.
The only thing they seem to share at this point is a central office, superintendent and school board.
So if the new plan is more or less the same as the current setup for the students — who would see no significant changes — and the taxpayers — who will likely pay around the same amount — who benefits from withdrawal?
First off, forming a new district would require a new school board of directors be formed, and the state requires that school board voting systems be weighted based on property tax assessments. This means that Belfast would go from controlling around 40 percent of the votes in RSU 20 to holding a majority of the votes in the new district.
This could be beneficial to the people of Belfast, but in the past — when SAD 34 still existed — the other towns complained that Belfast dominated the board.
The other group that clearly benefits from withdrawal are the former SAD 34 teachers. By withdrawing, the teachers would not have to come to an agreement over salary parity between Searsport and Belfast educators. For two years the two separate teachers' unions and the school unit have not been able to agree on a new contract that would work to bring the teachers in the former SAD 56 schools up to the compensation level of their counterparts in Belfast.
If there is no withdrawal, the Belfast teachers would not see their salaries decrease, but could be asked to pay more toward benefits and might not receive raises as generous or as often as they could under withdrawal, while the Searsport teachers' pay level was gradually raised.
In sum, from what we can see, the proposed withdrawal plan will do two things: Weight the school board more heavily in Belfast's favor and remove the requirement that Searsport teachers be paid on a par with their counterparts across the bay.
Ultimately, it is up to the state and the voters to approve or deny this plan. However, in our mind a withdrawal plan should do more to improve the system for the students and/or the taxpayers, rather than rigging the politics.
This week we reported about the formation of Friends of Penobscot Bay, a partnership that includes representation from the local tourism and fishing industries, as well as area environmental activists.
This partnership was forged based on a common interest — the overall health of the bay both now and into the future — and we think it's something we can all get behind.
After all, many of us who live here have some connection to the water. Whether the bay is essential to your profession or you just enjoy activities like sea kayaking or clamming, we can't think of a reason not to support the efforts of the newly created friends group.
We wish the Friends of Penobscot Bay luck in their endeavors, and look forward to seeing the results of their work in the years to come.