The clock is ticking for the Regional School Unit (RSU) 20 withdrawal committees, as the deadline to submit the agreement plans to the Commissioner of Education for approval and schedule a June primary vote looms.

The time line for the withdrawal process requires all of the agreements to be submitted to the state by the first week in April, at which point the commissioner of education has 60 days to approve the plans. Following state approval, public hearings must be held at least 20 days after the commissioner’s approval and notice of the meetings must be posted 10 days in advance.

Belfast attorney Kristin Collins noted that the state could approve the plans within two weeks of their submission.

The public hearings would be held in early May before the final agreement is submitted to the state. Once the final agreement is approved, the withdrawal vote could be scheduled for the June primary.

However, Collins stressed that if the April deadline for submitting the agreements to the state is not met, a June vote cannot occur, which could endanger the entire process.

Per state statue, at least 50 percent of the registered voters who cast a ballot during the 2010 gubernatorial election must vote on the withdrawal effort, with a majority of those voters casting “yes” ballots in order for the effort to pass.

During previous meetings, committee members from all six of the withdrawing towns — Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont and Swanville — agreed that holding the vote during the June primary presented the best chance, especially for the smaller towns, to get the required turnout.

However, during a six-town meeting Wednesday, March 20, concerns were raised that the time line could be jeopardized because Belmont and Searsmont have not voted on whether to accept the withdrawal agreement plan. Belfast, Morrill, Northport and Swanville approved the agreement plan, which goes to the RSU 20 Board of Directors for approval. The Board is scheduled to vote on at least the Belfast plan Tuesday, March 26.

When asked whether Searsmont and Belmont would vote to approve their agreements, neither Searsmont Committee Chair Chuck Hamm nor Belmont Committee Chair Aaron King could give a definitive answer.

Searsmont did unanimously approve submitting the agreement during its Thursday, March 21, meeting. Belmont also gave its consent to the agreement plan by a 3-to-1 vote, with committee member Stephen Hopkins opposed, at a Monday, March 25, meeting.

Withdrawal agreement changes

The most recent draft of the withdrawal agreement between RSU 20 and the six towns, which was handed out to committee members during the meeting, is mostly unchanged from previous versions. The draft does include specific language that requires transportation to be provided to and from the RSU 20 school attended by each new RSU student to and from a single point in each town.

Hamm clarified that bus routes would remain unchanged for students who stay in the new RSU.

The only other significant change in the plan is that the new RSU will be given an itemized statement from RSU 20 for actual costs related to moving, renovating and equipping a new RSU 20 central office. The new RSU will pay RSU 20 up to $50,000 of those costs by Oct. 1, 2014.

Committee members supported paying RSU 20 in October because concerns were raised during prior meetings about how the RSU will raise the necessary funds to make payments. However, the withdrawal agreement still calls for the new RSU to pay RSU 20 $35,066 — 27.18 percent — for the Sweetser building renovation costs. That payment is due July 1, 2014.

Collins said she would continue to push for RSU 20 to allow the new district to make the Sweetser payment in October, at the same time as the central office payment.

Belmont information meeting

Withdrawal committee members and members of the general public gathered at the Belmont Municipal Building Monday, March 25, to discuss the withdrawal process. While very few issues were raised about the agreement plan, many committee members agreed that a financial audit should be done to assess the potential impact of withdrawal on taxpayers.

Belmont committee member Stephen Hopkins requested the financial audit, citing his concern that he did not know the full impact of the withdrawal on the town.

"I care about the town and what it will cost us," Hopkins said.

Collins, who attended the meeting, suggested waiting to do the financial audit until after the plans are submitted to the state for approval. She said that the agreement plan does not deal specifically with money — with the exception of the two payments to RSU 20 — and it would make more sense to do the audit before the public hearings where residents will weigh in on the effort are scheduled.

Chuck Hamm, chair of the Searsmont withdrawal committee, agreed that the audit is important, but said it should not delay submission of the plan. Several other comments were made agreeing that the question of costs could be addressed at a later date and the plan should go before the voters for their approval.

Cost savings

Belfast committee member Susan Woods gave a brief presentation regarding potential cost savings if the six towns were to withdraw this year. Woods explained that the new RSU would lose $9,013,711 in revenue if the withdrawal occurred, but that loss in revenue would be exceeded by a reduction in expenses of $9,732,589. That would leave the new RSU with total savings of $681,841, if it were to withdraw this year.

Once RSU 20 presents its 2013-2014 budget, Woods said the committee could look at the numbers again to provide a more current analysis of potential costs and savings.

During the special information session held at the Belmont Municipal Building Monday, March 25, RSU 20 Board Chairman Anthony Bagley refuted the cost savings presented by Woods. Bagley said a recent audit found that the district has a carry-forward of $1.2 million, as opposed to the $1.6 million assessed by the withdrawal committee.

For that reason, Bagley said, the savings, as applied to the 2012-2013 budget, would be about $326,000 if the six towns were to withdraw this year, according to an analysis by the RSU 20 Central Office.

The next withdrawal meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, April 2, at the Morrill Community Center at 6:30 p.m.

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

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