Belfast Area High School teacher and withdrawal co-organizer Steve Hutchings presented the details of a movement on the part of the six former SAD 34 towns to withdraw from RSU 20 and come together as a new school unit to a small group of residents gathered at the Edna Drinkwater School on Monday, May 14.

Hutchings said he has worked with residents in his home community, Belfast, as well as people from Northport, Swanville, Searsmont, Belmont and Morrill toward withdrawing from RSU 20. Hutchings said he has been meeting with interested parties in each of those communities since February.

Hutchings said that effort came as the result of “two or three years of turmoil in RSU 20.”

“We thought there’s got to be something better, and that better as we know it is SAD 34,” he said.

Hutchings said he’s since learned of similar efforts that are ongoing in many communities around the state that were also forced to consolidate as a result of a 2007 directive from former Gov. John Baldacci. Some of the state’s push for districts to consolidate, Hutchings said, came in the form of penalties in excess of $500,000 for those districts that were not exempted from the law but still refused to consolidate with a neighboring district.

Though some savings were initially realized through the formation of RSU 20 a few years ago, Hutchings said the disadvantages have far outweighed any savings, and that is compounded by the fact that the state is no longer requiring districts that did not consolidate to pay any penalties.

“I don’t think it’s working, and a lot of people don’t think it’s working,” Hutchings said.

SAD 34 towns had been together for more than half a century since the Sinclair Act took effect in the 1960s, and because of that, people in those communities have had time to establish ways of solving problems to benefit the entire SAD, Hutchings said.

Five of the six towns, including Northport, will vote on whether to allow the town to explore withdrawing from RSU 20 during the regular June election, Hutchings said, while the final of the six is expected to vote on the issue within a couple of weeks of the June election.

If voters in Northport — or any of the other former SAD 34 towns, for that matter — opt to move ahead with examining the merits of a withdrawal, Hutchings said the next step for each of the towns is forming a four-person committee that would be charged with “figuring out the new system.”

In a withdrawal overview prepared for the City of Belfast on March 30 that was distributed at Monday night’s meeting, it stated the withdrawal committees must include one municipal officer, one member of the general public, one member of the petitioners’ group and one member of the RSU 20 Board of Directors.

“We want the six towns to work together,” said Hutchings.

The issue, Hutchings said, is that RSU 20 is comprised of two distinct systems through which students are educated.

The task of melding the former SAD 56 towns (Searsport, Stockton Springs and Frankfort) with the former SAD 34 towns has been a challenge because of a continued lack of a new teacher contract in RSU 20. The difficulty with establishing a new contract for RSU 20 teachers, said Hutchings, has largely been due to the widely different pay scales that exist in both former districts, with former SAD 34 teachers typically making more money than their former SAD 56 counterparts.

RSU 20 Finance Committee Chairman Gerry Reid said consolidation has also proved difficult because of the lack of a concerted effort to bring the two former districts together over the last few years.

“The culture of the two districts is very different, and the cost structures are very different,” said Reid, noting the per-pupil costs in the former SAD 56 was higher than what was the case in the former SAD 34 due to its very nature as a smaller, rural district.

Some in the audience raised questions about the size and composition of RSU 20’s 18-member board, and about whether there are any provisions in the consolidation laws that might allow for a smaller board.

“To me, it’s the system,” said Hutchings. “I’ve been around for so long that I’ve seen it work really well.”

RSU 20 Director Debora Riley said she felt the pending arrival of a new superintendent, Brian Carpenter, as well as the July 1change in the board membership due to spring elections, may make a difference in the way the board functions going forward.

“I don’t think it’s the size of the board as much as it is different cultures,” she said.

Hutchings said even if towns agree to explore a withdrawal, the matter is not a done deal.

“You’ve got to be satisfied with the design [of the consolidation plan],” he said.

The withdrawal committees in the respective communities will have 90 days to draft a withdrawal agreement, which will then go to the state education commissioner for approval. The commissioner will have 60 days to either approve the agreement or send it back to the committee for revisions. If the agreement is approved at the state level, a public hearing is scheduled in the respective town and the withdrawal agreement then goes to a town-wide vote. Under state law, the agreement must be approved through a two-thirds majority vote.

And, under the law in its current state, Hutchings said it is not possible to withdraw from the RSU as an entire former SAD, it must be done at the municipal level instead.

Other residents asked Hutchings if it was clear what the costs and/or savings might be for towns that do decide to withdraw from the RSU. Hutchings said that information is not known at this stage, and it is up to the withdrawal committees to “give as best a forecast as possible” on those issues.

Northport resident and former SAD 34 teacher Trudy Eldridge said she taught for 35 years in SAD 34, and could recall a time when the superintendent’s position was not so much focused on bringing two school districts together.

“We had one superintendent who could focus on the schools in our six towns, who was always working to make sure the kids got a good education,” she said.

Overall, Hutchings said the goal of the withdrawal effort is to bring the focus back to educating students and less on the dollars and cents aspect of running a school district.

“We really want to bring it back to the kids, that’s what it’s really all about,” he said.