Money continues to be a dominating topic of the withdrawal effort, as requests were made to conduct an independent audit and provide start-up costs for a new school district.

During an informational meeting held in the Morrill Community Center Tuesday, April 2, several questions were raised pertaining to the cost of withdrawing from Regional School Unit 20, the validity of the savings identified by a finance sub committee and how much initial start-up costs for the new district will be.

Committee members attempted to get some answers for potential start-up costs by asking former RSU 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux what the district did when it was forced to consolidate. Mailloux said the former School Adminstrative District 34 and SAD 56 pooled money in a single account to cover the initial costs.

He also noted that some costs turned out to be far less than anticipated, such as the buses. He explained that the RSU 20 lettering on the side of the buses is just a decal and can be easily, and cheaply, replaced. Other costs associated with forming a new district would include purchasing new stationary and other one-time expenses.

Belfast vice chairman Steve Hutchings said he would also be comfortable approaching the Belfast City Council to ask for initial start-up funding. While he was unsure if they would provide such funding, he said the council has been supportive of the withdrawal effort to date and may be willing to help with initial costs.

After Hutching’s remarks, Stephen Hopkins, who serves on Belmont’s withdrawal committee, said he spoke with the Department of Education and received a recommendation that the towns hire a professional to do an independent audit to determine potential costs or savings.

While some committee members supported the idea of an audit, others were more hesitant and raised concerns that the withdrawal effort was becoming too focused on money.

“I think there’s sometimes too much focus on the money, the money, the money,” Hutchings said.

Hopkins disagreed that there was too much focus on the money, stating that people need to know how much withdrawing could cost.

A point was also raised that in order to do the audit, the towns would most likely have to pool their resources because, with the exception of Belfast, only a small amount of money was set aside for withdrawal-related expenses.

As discussion continued, committee members agreed an analysis of potential start-up costs, as well as an updated cost analysis based on the 2013-2014 RSU 20 budget would be beneficial to provide to taxpayers.

Further discussion regarding the finances was then tabled in order to give residents a chance to ask questions about withdrawal.

Public questions

One of the first questions committee members fielded from residents was what the educational benefit to students is if the towns withdraw. Searsmont committee chairman Chuck Hamm suggested savings identified by a finance committee could benefit students.

He said the possible savings could preserve teaching positions and programs, which Hamm believed would be an educational benefit to students. Hutchings added that residents are essentially voting on whether they want to focus the available resources on the six towns pursuing withdrawal, or see those resources spread across the larger RSU 20 district.

Alexa Schweikert, who serves as Swanville’s representative on the RSU 20 board, said she feels that the RSU 20 board focuses too much on enrollment numbers and not enough on education. She said she hopes that if withdrawal is successful, the new RSU school board would focus more heavily on ways to improve the education of students.

Another question was raised about what consolidation took place within the district. Mailloux acknowledged the extent of the consolidation was related to creating one central office — which did save RSU 20 money in the first year.

As discussion on withdrawal concluded, Belfast board member Alan Wood encouraged residents to stay engaged in the process and evaluate the merits of staying in RSU 20 or leaving.

“We’re trying to figure out if the district is better with Searsport and Stockton or without,” Wood said.

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