Withdrawal committee opts to delay amendments until negotiations begin

By Ben Holbrook | Dec 13, 2012

Belfast — Belfast Withdrawal Committee members met Dec. 5 to consider amending the contingency clause in its agreement plan to require all six towns considering withdrawal to vote in favor of withdrawing from Regional School Unit 20.

The contingency clause in the original agreement plan required towns representing at least 85 percent of the student body population in the former School Administrative District 34 to vote in favor of withdrawal. If that percentage is not met, the withdrawal plan fails.

In addition to needing to satisfy the contingency requirements, state law requires the total number of votes cast –– both for and against –– to equal or exceed 50 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election, and that the majority of those votes are in favor of withdrawal.

Before the agreement plan was submitted to Spencer, committee members agreed to bump up the contingency to 90 percent of the student body population. However, during the Dec. 5 meeting, Belfast Attorney Kristin Collins said RSU 20 attorney Dick Spencer had flagged the contingency clause as a potential issue.

Belfast Committee Chairman Eric Sanders asked if the board would request 100 percent participation in order to withdraw. Collins said she has not received any official answers to that question at this time. Searsmont Committee member Valerie Mank, who also serves on the RSU 20 board of directors, said she supports 100 percent participation, because the concept of withdrawal is to re-form the former SAD 34 district, which would require all six towns to vote to withdraw.

Alexa Schweikert, Swanville withdrawal committee member and RSU 20 director, noted that there could be resistance from board members regarding the contingency percentage, citing the 90 percent threshold as a problem.

The general consensus from other committee members was that they are open to amending the agreement if the percentage threatens the ability to successfully negotiate with the school board. However, Steve Hutchings, vice chairman of the Belfast committee, said he is concerned that such a change would endanger the viability of the withdrawal because of voter turnout.

The committees are hopeful a vote can be held to approve or reject the withdrawal during the June 2013 primaries.

“If one town can’t get out the vote, then the whole thing is dead,” Hutchings said. “I personally have a problem with that. I would have a problem going to 100 percent.”

Preserving the 90 percent contingency allows the withdrawal to move forward even if one of the smaller towns, such as Belmont or Swanville, rejects the proposal.

Committee members from the towns noted that two factors that could impact the success of the withdrawal warranted adjusting the contingency clause. The first factor was that the financial capability of a five-town district could be questionable, and the second issue is whether the 90 percent or 100 percent contingency impacts voter turnout.

Chuck Hamm, chairman of the Searsmont withdrawal committee, expressed his support of adjusting the contingency to require 100 percent representation. However, he did question how committees should address the possibility that opponents to the plan may encourage people not to vote –– thus jeopardizing the state mandated voter turnout threshold.

“I’m really concerned about that,” he said.

Despite Hamm’s concerns, Sanders said he is confident the towns will pass withdrawal. He did encourage the committees to work hard to make sure people are aware of the vote. Committee Treasurer Susan Woods agreed, and said people must be aware of the importance of the vote. She also said she supported the amendment to the contingency if it would help the process.

“If it makes negotiations easier, why not do 100 percent?” she asked.

Ultimately, committee members agreed to wait until negotiations begin before deciding to make any changes to the agreement plan. Collins did not anticipate that negotiations with the school board would begin before the end of January.

The next withdrawal meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 19, at 6:30 p.m. in City Hall.

Republican Journal reporter Ben Holbrook can be reached at 338-3333 or at bholbrook@courierpublicationsllc.com.

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