Public hearing on school closure draws a dozen residentsVoters seek answers on several scenarios
Frankfort — A public hearing regarding the possible closure of Frankfort Elementary School Thursday night, Oct. 11, drew 12 people who asked questions about several scenarios concerning the closure and the town's effort to withdraw from the RSU.
RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter explained what steps the board has taken toward closing the school to date, as well as the procedure that would follow Thursday's public hearing.
"Basically, the school board agreed by a two-thirds weighted vote to close the school," said Carpenter.
The district has since provided an estimate to the state of what it costs to operate and maintain the school — a figure Carpenter said was roughly $610,000 — and presented the school closure article to the Frankfort town clerk earlier this month.
"Next, on Nov. 6, there will be an actual vote by the public," Carpenter said.
Frankfort Elementary School Principal Tina Boone asked how the vote to close the school relates to the ongoing withdrawal effort in Frankfort.
"Is closing the school contingent on the town voting to join Hampden?" asked Boone.
"It's separate from withdrawal," Carpenter said.
Carpenter further explained that the RSU 20 Board of Directors began the process of closing FES after obtaining direction regarding the Frankfort withdrawal process from attorney Dick Spencer of Drummond Woodsum and Maine Deputy Education Commissioner Jim Reier. At the Aug. 28 board meeting, Carpenter said the RSU would still be responsible for the building, even if Frankfort residents opted to withdraw. By starting the process of closing the school, Carpenter said, the district would have time to submit the necessary paperwork to the state Department of Education that explains the rationale for the closure.
Carpenter also said at that time that the move to close the school was intended to create a cleaner transition for the town and RSU 20 when Frankfort students begin the move over to RSU 22, and also because there would no longer be any students in the school. 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 first.
"Because we own the building, then we're responsible for the closure of the school," said Carpenter.
One resident asked what would happen if Frankfort residents voted against going through with withdrawal, but vote in favor of closing the school.
"Where will these children go?" asked the resident.
Carpenter said there would be two options in that case: Frankfort students could attend school at the Nickerson School in Swanville or Searsport Elementary or residents in Frankfort could petition the RSU 20 board to take a vote to reopen the Frankfort school. A two-thirds majority would be required in order for that vote to pass, Carpenter said.
"Does that vote take place in all RSU 20 towns, since the costs will be shared by all of the RSU 20 towns?" asked Frankfort resident and Frankfort Withdrawal Committee Chairman Gabe Baker.
Carpenter said he thought that might be the case, but he would research that question further.
Some in attendance asked Carpenter if there is sufficient space at the Nickerson School to house Frankfort students, and Carpenter said that, based on the latest enrollment analysis, he thought there would be enough room for those additional students. If for some reason there was not enough room at Nickerson for all FES students, Carpenter said, Searsport Elementary could house those children.
Others wanted to know what would happen if Frankfort residents voted down both the withdrawal and the school closure questions.
Baker said if Frankfort wasn't withdrawing and the vote was just pertaining to closing the school, for example, residents would have the option to vote the question down, but would then be on the hook for the more than $600,000 it costs the district to keep the building open. That cost to Frankfort residents, added Baker, would be in addition to the estimated $725,000 the town has paid for its local share of the RSU 20 budget.
State law dictates that the town could negotiate with the district to pay less than the $600,000 needed to cover the school's operation to offset the town's budgetary obligation, but that would be determined in a negotiation process involving representatives of the town and the RSU.
Another resident asked why the withdrawal and school closure questions are being posed to voters simultaneously instead of holding the withdrawal vote first and then letting voters decide on the school closure down the road.
The chief reason for having both votes on the same day as a presidential election is to insure a better turnout at the polls, Carpenter said. Judging from the turnout at the most recent withdrawal votes in Belmont and Swanville, where 16 and 50 people turned out to vote, respectively, Carpenter said it was important to pose the questions on a day when the most residents would likely go to the ballot box.