Residents express concern over possible closure of Searsport school complexDirectors encourage public to offer suggestions
Belfast — Not so fast.
That was the message from those who addressed the board during the first of eight public forums about possible school consolidation in Regional School Unit 20 Tuesday night, Jan. 22.
About 70 people turned out at Belfast Area High School to weigh in on three school consolidation concepts, known as courses of action three, five and "Steve," and many of those who spoke raised concerns about the future of the Searsport District High and Middle School complex.
Two of the three proposals the board is considering include closing Searsport District High School.
Prior to the question-and-answer session, RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter gave an overview of each plan, which included cost estimates he said were adjusted with updated information the day before the forum.
On the table
Course of action three establishes a regional middle school for students in grades five through eight; a regional high school for students in grades nine through 12; and three regional elementary schools for students in grades Pre-K through fourth. The three regional elementary schools would be Ames, CASS and Searsport Elementary School. Establishing three elementary schools, one middle school and one high school would result in Drinkwater, East Belfast, Nickerson and Weymouth being closed, as well as Searsport High School and Middle School. Students in grades nine through 12 at Searsport High School would go to to BAHS and students in grades six through eight at Searsport Middle School would go to Troy Howard. Students at Searsport Elementary in grade five would also go to Troy Howard. Drinkwater students in grades Pre-K through fourth would go to to CASS and students at Drinkwater in grade five would go to Troy Howard. Students in grades five at CASS and Ames would go to Troy Howard. Finally, students in kindergarten through fourth at Nickerson and students in Pre-K through fourth at East Belfast would go to to Searsport Elementary School.
Carpenter said he estimated savings for this course of action is between $1,898,843 and $1,911,843, Carpenter said, depending on factors such as the cost of minimally maintaining buildings if and when schools close, staff retirements and benefit costs. The savings estimate also included the $390,000 estimated cost of moving and/or expanding technology in come buildings to accommodate the movement of students to new buildings in the district.
The fifth reorganization proposal indicates the district would keep the Belfast and Searsport high schools open, while Troy Howard would educate students in grades five through eight. Ames and CASS would educate students Pre-K through fourth grade. Students in East Belfast and at Nickerson would attend school at Searsport Elementary and Searsport High/Middle School. The Belfast high school would educate students in grades nine through 12. Drinkwater, East Belfast, Nickerson and Weymouth would be closed. Students at Drinkwater in Pre-K through fourth grade would go to CASS, while students at Drinkwater in grade five would go to Troy Howard along with fifth grade students from CASS. Grade five students at Searsport Elementary School would go to Troy Howard. Weymouth students in Pre-K to first grade would go to Ames, while students in grade five at Ames would go to Troy Howard. Students in kindergarten through fourth grade at Nickerson and students in Pre-K through fourth grade would go to Searsport Elementary School. Fifth grade students at Nickerson and East Belfast would attend school at Searsport Middle School.
"There are no savings from this course of action," Carpenter said.
Because this proposal would require more staff, Carpenter said it could cost the district between $486,047 and $498,047. The additional staff, largely located at Troy Howard and BAHS, would include returning foreign language to the middle school, as well as another art teacher, two more science teachers at SDHS for the marine sciences program and more educational technicians.
The proposed additional staff left some residents accusing district leaders of adding a "wish list" with this course of action, particularly since some of those positions — like the foreign language teacher — are not included in the current budget.
"If we didn't have it this year, do we need it next year?" asked a resident.
Carpenter said the staffing issues in this proposal are in part due to the increase in students at the schools absorbing students from closed schools, and he added that building administrators made staffing suggestions for this course of action.
"I put no numbers into any budgets to benefit anybody," he said.
Course of action "Steve," named for its originator, RSU 20 Director Stephen Hopkins, called for closing the Weymouth School in Morrill and sending those students to the Ames School in Searsmont, closing the Nickerson School in Swanville and sending those children to Searsport Elementary and closing Searsport District Middle and High Schools and sending those students to Troy Howard Middle School and Belfast Area High School.
This proposal, said Carpenter, could save the district between $941,358 and $963,358.
Concerns, and a suggestion
Many at the meeting expressed worry that the potential closure of the complex is a continuation of the incremental loss of buildings — and in the case of the withdrawal of Frankfort from the district, students — that once made up the former School Administrative District 56 prior to its state-imposed merge with School Administrative District 34 in 2009. Since the two districts came together to form RSU 20, the Stockton Springs Elementary School has been converted into an early childhood development center and the remaining elementary school students moved over to Searsport Elementary School, the last remaining elementary school in the former SAD 56.
And this year, students in the former SAD 56 have been transported to school by way of a single bus run that has the district's youngest students riding buses with high school students.
Searsport resident Amber Stanhope said that arrangement has been difficult for her four-year-old, who she said is on the bus for about an hour each morning.
"He cries for about 20 minutes every day before he gets on," said Stanhope.
Later in the meeting, Stanhope outlined all that the former SAD 56 has lost and said when it comes to considering what schools to close to achieve cost savings, the board should look toward those that remain in the former SAD 34 towns.
"Your turn," she said.
Another resident asked why she should pay taxes toward to operation of the district if "we can't have our own schools?"
RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter said towns can keep their schools open if they choose not to vote in favor of closing a school after the board votes to do so. The catch is that the town must pay what the district would have saved if the school had been closed.
"If you want to run your schools, that is an option," he said.
Heidi Seekins of Swanville asked if the board had any plans for any school buildings that might be closed.
Carpenter said the district would offer a closed building to the town in which it is located first, but the town wouldn't get as good a deal as Frankfort residents got for that elementary school building.
"It won't be for a dollar like Frankfort was," he said.
None of the district buildings have been appraised to date, Carpenter said.
Others in the audience asked how marketable a former school building could be, and Carpenter said the Veazie school district recently sold a former school to an outfit that converted it for use as housing for senior citizens.
"What if we can't get rid of the building," asked another resident.
Carpenter said after the district offers it to the town and the town declines to buy, the district could hold onto to it for five years.
"Then we can demolish it, but that's the way it goes," he said.
Dawn Staples-Knox, who has taught at SDHS for 27 years, urged the board to hold off on making any decisions that could have a lasting and adverse impact on the ongoing work at SDHS.
"I ask you not to make a decision to close our middle and high school," she said. "We are close, so close, to being a world-class school."
For the last eight years, Staples-Knox said she's seen faculty from in-state and out-of-state high schools, as well as college professors, who have come to SDHS to "see what we're doing here."
Others in the crowd asked the board to hold off on consolidation, especially with all eight towns pursuing withdrawal from the RSU, but Carpenter said with continued declining state revenue and climbing costs like health insurance, the district taxpayers could be looking at another 10-percent tax hike for the 2014-15 school budget.
Director Christopher Hyk said the annual property taxes on an inn in Belfast selling for $389,000 came in at about $17,000.
"If we don't do something to tackle property taxes in these towns, it's going to become unmanageable," Hyk said.
Searsport resident Jess Connor suggested the district consider a fourth course of action that included changing the SDHS/MS complex into the district middle school and using BAHS as the regional high school.
"That is the reason we're here," said Board Chairman Tony Bagley in response to Connor's suggestion.
Bagley said a similar proposal the board pitched a few years ago involved a similar configuration, where the SDHS/MS complex served as the district middle school, but that it was "killed at the board level" because it did not go over well with residents.
Tuesday night, it appeared residents were willing to reconsider that idea, as several in the crowd asked the board if that option could also be considered in addition to the three courses of action on the table.
Bagley encouraged all who wished to offer suggestions and ideas to contact the administration or the directors.
"Emails, phone calls, attend meetings, that's what you can do," he said.
Tuesday's forum was the first of eight that will take place throughout the district in the coming weeks, with the board aiming to consider all the public comment and move toward making a decision on school consolidation at the Feb. 28 regular board meeting. Bagley said the board would schedule the remaining seven forums at the next regular board meeting, set for Tuesday night, Jan. 28.
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Tanya has been a general news reporter in Waldo County since 1997.
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