Storms, cancellations put Jan. 9 school consolidation forum on iceBoard to reschedule informational meeting this week
Belfast — Recent winter weather events, particularly the Ice Storm of 2013, and the resulting school cancellations prompted Regional School Unit 20 Board Chairman Tony Bagley to reschedule a public forum on school consolidation concepts that was tentatively scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 9.
On Thursday morning, Bagley said he made the decision to postpone the forum earlier this week.
Bagley said the board tentatively scheduled the forum at its December meeting, at which time the board agreed to ask Superintendent Brian Carpenter to provide financial data for plans identified as number three, five and "Steve."
Bagley said the board set the Jan. 9 date tentatively because directors recognized it would take the superintendent some time to pull the financial data needed to consider the three ideas, and with the recent ice storm, extreme cold and additional weather events that prompted the cancellation of school, Bagley said he opted to call for the postponement.
"I myself wanted to have that data to review," said Bagley.
Bagley said getting the cost information together for each of the three proposals is "more than just looking at a line" in the budget.
With just one potential school closure, Bagley said the administration must look at all of the ramifications of doing so. A reduction in staff could trigger something known as "bumping," meaning staffers with more seniority could be allowed to transition into other jobs in the district. That alone, said Bagley, would mean a change in the cost based on what staffers remain, what their pay levels are and what kinds of benefit packages each receive as part of their employment.
Bagley cautioned that any cost figures presented from now and into the near future are estimates based on what the district knows now, as the district has yet to learn how much the state subsidies will be for the coming year.
"It's just our best guess," he said.
The next regular board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 14 at Searsport District High School, and Bagley said he had asked Carpenter to have the financial information prepared for the directors in time for that meeting. At that time, Bagley said, directors will be asked to set a date for the public forum, likely at least a week out from Tuesday's meeting.
Doing so will allow directors a few days to go over the data and prepare for the forum, Bagley said.
"A few people want to rush, rush, rush this," said Bagley. " ... I personally don't want to leave any stone unturned."
Proposal three indicates the district would establish 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.
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.
Proposal number five indicates the district would keep the Belfast and Searsport high schools open, while Troy Howard would educate students in grades 5-8. 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 9-12.
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.
In proposal "Steve," which the board 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.
Bagley also spoke to the process the public can expect to see with respect to the consolidation concepts in the coming months, adding that the current discussions remain in the "infancy stage."
In the fall, Bagley said the board asked Carpenter to come up with possible courses of actions aimed at consolidating the district buildings, and the superintendent came back with seven different options. From there, the district's administrative team met, looked them over and narrowed the ideas down to three, and the team later joined the directors at a November workshop to discuss plan preferences. The workshop also produced three proposals that all who attended agreed would be worth further study.
Then, at the December meeting, the board considered all the feedback that came out of those meetings and settled on concepts two, three and "Steve."
There is still a long way to go before the board will be in a position to make any final decision, Bagley said, and a district wide public forum will be the place to start answering questions from the public.
After that, Bagley said, the directors and administration will take the ideas on tour.
"We'll go to every town and give the information," he said.
If and when the directors choose to pursue one of the three plans, Bagley said it will take more than just an affirmative board vote to accomplish that. State law dictates a school board must first vote to close a specific school and the vote must be by a two-thirds majority. Then the matter is turned over to residents of the town where the school faces closure, a decision the residents will make by way of a referendum vote.
If residents in the impacted town vote against closing the school, according to state law, that town must pay the savings offset to the district.
Until the process gets to that point, Bagley said he feels the best approach to the issue of consolidation is one that is slow and steady.
"Once you make decisions like this, the impacts to the students, the families, the finances, you can't change it," he said.
The Tuesday, Jan. 14, meeting is set to begin at 6:30 p.m. at SDHS.
This story corrected an earlier version that erroneously detailed proposal two instead of proposal five as an option the board will further consider in upcoming public forums. The Journal regrets the error.
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Tanya has been a general news reporter in Waldo County since 1997.
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