At its first meeting with Regional School Unit 20 officials Thursday night, members of the Frankfort Withdrawal Committee began seeking the information needed to complete a plan to withdraw from the nine-town district.

The withdrawal plan is the next step in an ongoing process that was formally initiated in March, when Frankfort residents voted in favor of leaving RSU 20 and joining RSU 22 (which encompasses Hampden, Newburgh and Winterport).

Thursday, withdrawal committee members Alan Gordon, Twyler Webster and Gabriel Baker met with RSU 20 Directors Tony Bagley, Percy King, board chairman Jean Dube and RSU 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux about the need to complete the plan within the time allotted to the committee under state law.

Frankfort selectmen formed the committee on March 19, and according to previously published reports, the committee has 90 days from that date to address 11 issues that the state says must be resolved. Those issues range from transportation services to disposition of real and personal property, and includes a general education plan that answers the question: Where will Frankfort students go to school?

Once the withdrawal committee completes its work, the group will send a plan to the Maine Department of Education. The education commissioner will then have 60 days to either grant conditional approval or send the plan back with suggested changes. If changes are required, another time frame is set in place, according to published reports.

Once the plan is given conditional approval by the commissioner, it gets sent back to Frankfort residents for a final referendum vote, which would be preceded by public hearings.

A clean break

Baker, who serves as the committee chair, raised some of those questions Thursday night — namely, establishing a drawdown rate for Frankfort students from RSU 20, transportation and transferring ownership of the Frankfort Elementary School building.

“We have to establish a drawdown rate to determine when students will no longer have a choice about which school district they’re going to be attending school,” said Baker.

Baker said the committee decided the student drawdown should occur after the first school year following the vote, as under the law, all families of students in grades K-12 must have a choice of where they want their children to attend school.

Further, Baker said the committee decided to take a different route than what was the case in the state’s first withdrawal effort, when the Town of Starks opted to pull out of RSU 59. In the Starks plan, Baker said, families there have a choice of where their children will go to school for the rest of the time those children are in school, and the plan also extends that option to any incoming younger siblings.

Committee member and Frankfort selectman Allan Gordon said the thought behind establishing limitations was to create a clean break between the town and RSU 20.

“That makes it stretch out for at least 16 years, and we didn’t think that was a good way to handle it,” said Gordon.

Baker said the committee wants to set 10th grade as the cutoff grade in the second year of the withdrawal process to avoid forcing older students out of their local high school to attend a different high school. That method of drawdown would also make the change more predictable for both school units, in terms of how many Frankfort families will be staying with RSU 20 and how many will be going to RSU 22 schools.

But, Baker said, the committee has yet to work through all the details with RSU 22 officials.

“We still have yet to negotiate, as far as entry into another school district,” said Baker.

Mailloux said he thought most juniors and seniors would opt to remain in RSU 20 because they will likely want to graduate with the classmates they’ve known throughout their school years.

Director Tony Bagley sought clarification about what that cutoff time would mean to local families.

“So a child who is in tenth grade can stay for their high school career, and they’ll have that choice,” he said. “But what if they have a sibling who’s in the eighth grade?”

“We’re going to force those families to make a decision,” said Baker, referring to the second year of the withdrawal process. “We’re encouraging families to say, ‘OK, we need to make a decision, are we going to have kids in two school districts?’ We have to make a clear cutoff.”

Dube said she favored the portion of the draft plan that offers families an initial choice and avoids disruption to those high school students who prefer to stay in RSU 20.

Mailloux said he supported the idea of asking families of children in grades K-9 to make a clear decision after the first year.

“There needs to be a ‘yes’ day and a ‘no’ day,” said Mailloux.

Director and committee member Webster said many parents would likely choose based on work, daycare and other circumstances.

In the second year of the process, Baker said the committee is required to send both districts and the state a final tally of the students who will go to school in one district or the other.

Getting there

During the first year after the town vote on the plan, which Baker called “the transition year,” the committee recommends setting up a single-point pickup for all students who wish to stay in RSU 20.

“We wouldn’t anticipate asking RSU 20 to provide two buses,” said Baker.

“What happens after the first year?” asked King.

“They’ll probably be on their own,” said Gordon, referring to Frankfort parents’ responsibility to transport their children to RSU 20 schools.

Depending on how many Frankfort students opted to remain in RSU 20, Mailloux said the district might consider a compromise.

“If we had 30 or 40 students who wanted to stay, we’d look at that pretty hard,” said Mailloux.

At one point the question was raised about the scenario of a fourth grader wishing to remain in RSU 20 for their fifth grade year, and if RSU 20 would be obligated to provide their education at Frankfort Elementary School (FES).

“That means in the district, but not necessarily in the school building,” said Gordon.

Mailloux expressed relief, as he said it would not be cost effective to “pay for teachers at Frankfort Elementary School to teach two kids.”

About that building

Through initial discussions with RSU 22 officials, Baker said the Hampden-based district has no immediate need for the FES building and the Town of Frankfort is not prepared to “take out a significant bond” to obtain it.

Baker said back in the late 1960s, when the state established School Administrative Districts (SAD), the building was constructed with mostly state funds as part of the incentive for the town to join the former SAD 56.

Because the building was constructed with state money, and there is no substantial debt service attached to the building, Baker suggested the district consider conveying the building back to the town for $1.

If RSU 20 takes over the building and there is also no further educational use for the property, the space would either need to be leased to a nonprofit or return to the tax rolls because there would no longer be a tax-exempt use for it.

That means the property taxes for the building would increase significantly, Baker said, and maintenance such as plowing for fire safety would also be necessary.

Baker said the town is willing to take on those responsibilities, and might use the building for town office and recreational space.

“We might lease out some of the rooms,” added Gordon.

“That’s a valid request,” said Mailloux of the committee’s suggestion.

Mailloux said because RSU 20 would no longer have a use for the building, the state requires the district to offer it back to the town.

“If it’s at fair market value, the town’s would say no,” said Mailloux. “The RSU could then put a for sale sign up.”

Until a purchase goes through, though, Mailloux said, “the district would owe property tax to the Town of Frankfort on that.”

“There’s nobody looking for a vacated school at this point,” said Baker of the current real estate market.

“Well, you’ve given us three things to take a look at,” said Mailloux.

As the meeting wound down, there was also some discussion of what might happen to the current staff at FES, and how ongoing RSU 20 teacher contract negotiations could impact the move to RSU 22.

Once the move takes place, said Baker, “the staff members do not go” with the Frankfort students.

It is up to RSU 22 to decide whether the district would hire on some of the former FES staff, Baker said. Mailloux said the district typically sees several retirements at the end of each year, and teachers who lose jobs due to staff reductions have the “first option” for those positions.

The next committee meeting is set for Thursday, May 24, at 6 p.m. at the Central Office in Belfast.