Members of Belfast's withdrawal committee met for the first time Tuesday, Nov. 5, to begin discussing the process of leaving Regional School Unit 20.

To date, Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport and Searsmont have voted to restart their withdrawal efforts. Morrill residents voted 97 in favor to 56 opposed during a referendum vote Nov. 5 to restarting the withdrawal process, according to vote tallies.

Belfast's withdrawal committee members are Eric Sanders, Joan Crabiel, Wayne Corey and Alan Wood.

Tony Bagley, chair of the RSU 20 board of directors, advised the Belfast committee they may want to consider asking the state for an indefinite extension for working on the withdrawal plan. Bagley said Belmont's withdrawal committee asked and received such an extension from the state.

State statute requires that the withdrawal committee for a municipality create and submit a plan for withdrawal within 90 days of when the committee is formed. However, committees can submit a request to the state asking for additional time.

After electing Sanders as chair of the withdrawal committee, Belfast attorney Kristin Collins discussed a rough timeline she created for the withdrawal process. According to her estimates, the committee will study its options for withdrawal in November and December before beginning negotiations with the RSU 20 board of directors between December 2013 and February 2014.

Following negotiations, the committee will submit its plan to the Department of Education in March 2014, which has 60 days to approve the plan. Assuming the DOE takes the full 60 days to approve the plan, the withdrawal committee would be notified of the plan's acceptance by April 2014. Public hearings hosted by the RSU 20 board of directors would be scheduled to begin following approval of the withdrawal plan in mid-April 2014.

Once the public hearings are completed, the withdrawal committee would submit a finalized withdrawal agreement to the DOE for approval. The city council would then schedule a public hearing in June of 2014.

If the DOE approves the finalized withdrawal plan, a referendum vote would be scheduled for either July 2014 or November 2014. Should the withdrawal referendum pass, it would take effect the summer of 2015.

Under current state law, the withdrawal referendum requires that at least 50 percent of the voters who cast a ballot during the previous gubernatorial election, which was in 2010, cast a ballot either for or against withdrawal.

The voter turnout requirement in the withdrawal statute is eliminated beginning Jan. 1, 2015.

Collins noted that if the withdrawal referendum is held in November 2014, which is also a gubernatorial election, the voter threshold to pass withdrawal would still be based on the voter turnout numbers from the 2010 gubernatorial election.

During Tuesday's meeting, much of the discussion focused on how the possible consolidation of RSU 20 could impact the withdrawal effort. Recently, RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter released seven potential options for consolidating the district — all of which involve closing schools.

Regardless of what course of action RSU 20 pursues, Collins reminded committee members that they must still create a plan for withdrawal from the district. Wood also commented that he didn't believe there is enough support among the board of directors to close any schools in the district.

A vote to close a school requires a 2/3 vote from the board of directors. If the board did get the required 2/3 vote to close a school, the issue would go to referendum vote before the residents in the town that would have its school closed. Voters could then decide to not close the school, but the town would be responsible for the additional cost of keeping the school open.

Sanders commented that the city of Belfast is looking at hiring consultants to assess the financial and educational impact of the city staying in RSU 20; the city creating a stand alone district; or Belfast reforming School Administrative District 34.

Once that analysis is completed, the withdrawal committee could use that information as it creates its plan for leaving RSU 20.

Committee members then agreed to meet in two weeks — Tuesday, Nov. 19 — at 5 p.m. in City Hall to gather data related to withdrawal.