Faced with declining state funding and increasing operating costs, the RSU 20 school board is considering closing one or more of the district’s nine elementary schools.

Superintendent Bruce Mailloux addressed the subject with board members during a budget workshop held Feb. 25 at the district’s central office, and said after researching all the options he felt that three schools — Frankfort Elementary, Kermit Nickerson Elementary in Swanville and Stockton Springs Elementary — were the only options.

Other schools could not be considered as practical options, Mailloux said, because of issues such as the ability of certain schools to absorb additional students and the proximity of particular schools to one another.

Of the three choices he presented to the board, Mailloux recommended closing Stockton Springs Elementary School. He said there is enough space at Searsport Elementary School for all Stockton students to go there, and Searsport is the closest school to Stockton. 86 students currently attend school in Stockton.

Mailloux estimated the district would be able to save almost $400,000 by closing the Stockton school. That estimate breaks down as follows: $150,000 by eliminating three staff positions, $4,200 in supplies, $89,992 from the principal’s office (principal’s salary of $29,200, secretary’s salary of $27,597, benefits totaling $28,585 and $4,610 worth of supplies) and $151,517 in custodial maintenance.

Mailloux said those amounts, which total $395,709, would help put a dent in the $1.5 million cut in the district’s state funding for the coming school year. In addition to that $1.5 million, factors such as increased staff salaries and health insurance costs will likely drive the district’s budget shortfall for the coming school year above $2 million, perhaps as high as $2.3 million, according to Mailloux.

To compensate for the loss of that $1.5 million, and the potential for hundreds of thousands of dollars in the extra costs mentioned above, the district must either cut spending or raise taxes, or a combination of the two. Mailloux had previously said district officials want to avoid passing the costs on to taxpayers, and closing one or more schools is seen as a way to accomplish that.

Though he did not have exact figures with him at the Feb. 25 meeting, Mailloux said his calculations had shown the savings that might be realized from closing either Frankfort Elementary or the Nickerson School would be within about $50,000 of the figure for the Stockton school.

After hearing Mailloux’s presentation, some board members seized on one of the issues he had identified and suggested closing a different school. Mailloux had raised the question about what Frankfort’s future is with RSU 20, given that the town had expressed an interest in leaving both SAD 56 and now RSU 20. The superintendent said he had talked with town officials, who indicated they are still interested in leaving the district. Though Frankfort will not be able to do that for at least a couple more years due to state law, when pressed for an answer, Mailloux told board members he thinks the town stands a fair chance of successfully seceding.

That, in turn, prompted some board members to question if they should be looking at closing Frankfort Elementary instead.

“They want to do nothing for us,” said Tony Bagley, regarding Frankfort. “I guess I don’t see giving that school an opportunity to stay there.”

Bagley also raised the issue of the Frankfort school building’s physical condition, which he said was among the poorest of all the schools in the district. Fellow board member Stephen Hopkins agreed with Bagley, noting that the Frankfort school “needs a lot of money put into it.” Hopkins asked why the district should spend money to upgrade the school if the town might leave the district in the near future.

Board member Denise Dakin suggested the district consider closing the Frankfort and Swanville schools, sending Frankfort students to Stockton Springs and Swanville students to Searsport. Citing enrollment and school capacity figures offered by district officials, Dakin said the Stockton and Searsport schools could both absorb the additional students.

Mailloux said such a move would leave a wide swath of territory in the northern part of RSU 20 without its own school, a situation he said he hoped to avoid.

Others pointed out such a move would mean Swanville students would likely end up going to Searsport District Middle School, rather than Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast as they do now, when they enter sixth grade. Such a move would change enrollment numbers at four schools above the elementary level — Belfast Area High School and Searsport District High School, in addition to SDMS and THMS — and might necessitate staff adjustments at those schools if the plan suggested by Dakin were enacted.

Other factors were considered and debated during the discussion on school closures, including the length of time young children spend traveling to and from school and also whether a school could be split up — taking the Nickerson School, for example, and sending three of the six classes to the Captain Albert Stevens School in Belfast and the other three to Searsport Elementary School. Mailloux noted in his presentation to the board that dividing students up like that would not be well-received.

One final aspect of the school closure issue that was discussed at the Feb. 25 meeting was the formal process that is spelled out in state law and which must be followed before any school can close. The school district, according to Mailloux, must come up with an estimated cost savings — the $395,709, for example, with regard to the Stockton school — and then review and revise that figure working with state officials.

When both sides agree on a figure, the question is then taken to the voters of the town where the school is located. Using the Stockton school as an example, only voters in Stockton Springs would be asked to decide the question. Residents of other RSU 20 communities would not vote on the matter.

The question would read, “Do you favor authorizing the board of directors of RSU 20 to close the Stockton Springs Elementary School?” Beneath that question would be a line — using the district’s current estimate — that reads: “The additional cost of keeping the school open has been estimated by the regional school unit board to be $395,709.”

If the vote is favorable, the school would be closed and the district would proceed with its plan to send students elsewhere. If the municipality votes no, however — that is, if a town decides they want to keep their school open — they would be required to pay the amount of money listed on the ballot to the school system for that year.

Using the example of the Stockton Springs Elementary School, if RSU officials seek to close that school and Stockton voters were to decide to keep the school open for the 2010-2011 school year, the town would be responsible for paying the $395,709 amount to the district for that year.

“I don’t like that law, but it is the law,” said Mailloux.

At the end of the discussion on the school closure topic, Mailloux asked for guidance from the board and tried to get a sense of what board members wanted him to do next. After some discussion, it was agreed to revisit the topic at the board’s next meeting, set for Tuesday, March 9 at 6:30 p.m. in the Belfast Area High School library.