Five-town RSU reorganization plan taking shape
Belfast — Attorney Kristin Collins updated the Belfast City Council on a committee's progress drafting a reorganization plan for a new Regional School Unit at a meeting Aug. 5.
There are 13 points that have to be addressed by the reorganization committee, Collins said, including ownership of property (the RSU would own all of its community property), number of members on the board, how the votes will be weighted and distribution for cost-sharing among the towns.
The committee decided on a nine-member board for the new RSU, which is smaller than the current RSU 20 board of 18. Collins said in her experience smaller is better — more people turn out for the meetings and the board tends to be more committed.
Collins said Belfast would have five members on the board and more than 500 of the 1,000 votes, giving it a majority of the members and majority voting power. Terms will be set to three years, after a period of staggered terms consisting of, for Belfast representatives, a three-year seat, two two-year seats and one one-year seat.
The committee considered all the cost-sharing options available for the local share of the school budget not covered by Essential Programs and Services funding. The reorganization committee decided to base cost sharing on valuation, the same method currently in effect in RSU 20. The difference in this plan is that it includes a provision allowing the cost-sharing method to be changed in the future.
Though this cost-sharing method would hit Belfast harder than it would the other towns, Collins said Belfast would likely still save money compared to the cost of remaining in RSU 20, according to a current financial analysis. Each of the other methods considered would “erode the other towns' savings and put them in the red” almost ensuring voters in the other four towns would reject the plan, Collins said.
“I think a streamlined board would be in everybody's best interest,” said Councilor Eric Sanders. “The hit to Belfast pales in comparison to what streamlining can do.”
But Mayor Walter Ash argued that cost-sharing should be equal for all towns. “By not making it even we're driving families out to the 'bedroom communities,'” he said. “This is the time to even it out.” He added that Belfast would have to take on more transportation costs than the other towns as well.
“The five towns including Belfast need each other and will save hundreds of thousands of dollars collectively through withdrawal, though what the final savings will be in the final report is yet to be seen,” Sanders said. “I pay more taxes [living in Belfast] for a lot of reasons, one of them is the ability to be close to things [medical services]. People make choices based on money and some make their decisions based on what they want out of life.”
Collins said the three Belfast members on the committee have argued strongly about going with student-count-based cost sharing, but the valuation method was chosen because Belfast has the tax base to support it.
She stated that if cost sharing were instead based on an average of valuation and student count rather than purely on valuation, Belfast would save about $300,000 out of the $10 million in the budget that surpasses the EPS amount.
Mayor Walter Ash said he anticipates the public will raise questions about cost-sharing during the public hearings. City Manager Joseph Slocum said a page will be set up on the city's website where the withdrawal and reorganization plan will be posted along with other information related to withdrawal so residents of the affected towns can review them before the hearings.
The council officially appointed Alan Wood, Wayne Corey and Larry Todd to the reorganization committee, on which they have been serving as Belfast's representatives. The committee is composed of about 15 members representing the towns of Belfast, Swanville, Searsmont, Morrill and Belmont, Collins said, and has made great progress in its first two meetings. Bruce Mailloux, former RSU 20 superintendent, has been appointed as the committee's facilitator, and Collins is writing the reorganization plan.
Once the plan is drafted and agreed upon by the committee, Collins said, it will be sent to the Department of Education for approval. If approved, it will go to public hearing, the date of which will be posted and advertised by the school board with additional advertisement by the city. Hearings on all five towns' and Northport's draft withdrawal plans will be held the first week of September, at which the public will be informed about the technicalities of the plans. The pros and cons of withdrawal will be discussed in referendum hearings before the election.
The reorganization plan will then go to vote on the November ballot, along with the question of withdrawal. The withdrawal agreement is worded such that if the reorganization plan fails initially, it can be reworked and voted on again and the new RSU would take effect in 2016. If withdrawal is rejected in November, the withdrawal process will most likely end there, Collins said.
The reorganization committee met at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 7 and will meet again at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 14. These meetings are open to the public.
A public review of Northport's withdrawal agreement will be held Tuesday, Sept. 2 at 7 p.m. at Edna Drinkwater Elementary School in Northport. A public review of the five-town withdrawal agreement will be held Thursday, Sept. 4 at 7 p.m. at Belfast Area High School.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Searsport was a part of this withdrawal plan. Searsmont is the town included in this plan.