After nearly two hours of debate about how to proceed with either of the seven proposed school consolidation concepts, or whether to proceed at all, the board agreed to ask the superintendent to provide financial data for plans identified as number three, five and "Steve."

Directors made those decisions during the regular meeting Tuesday night, Dec. 10, at Belfast Area High School.

But before the board jumped into the talks about what plans they wanted Superintendent Brian Carpenter to explore further, Carpenter sought a firm commitment from directors about whether the board would be willing to follow through, even if it meant closing schools.

"There's no sense going down this road when at the end of the day we're not going to do something," he said.

Carpenter said pulling financial data for just one proposal would mean a great deal of work and time on the part of the district staff. If the board opted out of considering any of the plans, he said, directors could expect another difficult budget-building process come February.

"Something's got to give," he said.

Ready or not?

Director Denise Dakin said proposal number five was what most administrators and directors indicated a preference for at the board workshop held last month.

With proposal five Ames Elementary in Searsmont would become a pre-K-4 school and the Weymouth School in Morrill would be closed, sending the pre-K, kindergarten and first graders from that school to Ames. The Drinkwater School in Northport would also close, and those students from grades K-4 would attend classes at the Captain Albert Stevens School in Belfast. The Nickerson School in Swanville would also be closed, sending those K-4 students to Searsport Elementary, while the East Belfast School would become an early childhood center with students in grades 1-4 attending Searsport Elementary.

The changes would make CASS a K-4 school, Searsport Elementary a pre-K-4 school, while both Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast and Searsport Middle School would serve students in grades 5-8. Searsport District and Belfast Area High Schools would remain as 9-12 schools, but would assume identities as "focus schools"

But Directors Alan Wood and Stephanie Wade felt the board should form a committee to further research the options before making a choice.

"I feel that we're not ready to make a decision," said Wood.

Director Tony Swebilius, who is also chairman of the Finance Committee, said choosing a couple of plans to garner more information is merely a starting point for the board, and a necessary step to address an estimated $2 million budget gap.

"If we're truly looking at a potential $2 million revenue debt next year, we've got to do something," he said. "… We don't have to decide exactly what."

In the midst of the debate, Board Chairman Tony Bagley told directors "the superintendent is calling your bluff."

Director Caitlin Hills questioned how the board could make an informed decision on preferred plans when there is not financial data included with either of them at this time.

Director Charles Grey referred to suggestions from Northport resident and parent Sandy Wallace, who during the public comment period suggested alternatives to school closures such as combining grades and better utilizing existing space in the schools.

"It doesn't say anything about closing schools," said Grey of the motion regarding the board's intent. "I heard people talk about being creative."

Director Alexa Schweikert recalled past proposals that involved closing schools, and stated none of them were popular with residents. Schweikert further said she was afraid that if she showed support for the motion solidifying board intent it would indicate she supported closing schools. She did, however, say she could support consolidating on a smaller scale, like just combining the two high schools.

"We can't continue in the mode we're in," said Director Debora Riley. " … I think we have to move forward."

"I feel like this is part of due diligence on our part," said Director Valerie Mank.

At one point Director David Ferguson asked Director Stephen Hopkins to consider amending his original motion to exclude any mention of closing schools, and Hopkins agreed. Mank later asked Hopkins to add language directing the superintendent to investigate reorganization to make some fellow board members more comfortable with supporting the motion, but Hopkins declined to do so.

"Personally I think all directors should be uncomfortable," he said. "… The only way to consolidate is to close schools."

After a second motion to call the question attained the required two-thirds majority vote, directors passed the motion outlining its intent to move forward with the reorganization process. Directors Bagley, Dakin, Ferguson, Grey, Hopkins, Mank, Riley, Schweikert, Percy King, Jason Perkins, Sharon Catus and James Cunningham voted in favor of the motion, while Directors Hills, Wood and Wade voted against the motion. Director Swebilius abstained.

A place to start

In the second portion of the reorganization discussion, the agenda called for the board to select proposals for further analysis, which generated more debate.

Hopkins said he was not one of the people who supported plan five at the workshop but that he agreed with some aspects of it. He then suggested Carpenter research what the costs would be to close Weymouth and send those students to Ames, close Nickerson and send those children to Searsport Elementary and close Searsport District Middle and High School, with those youths going to Troy Howard and BAHS.

After Bagley asked Hopkins to which option he was referring, Hopkins said it was an idea he came up with on his own. After some discussion, directors dubbed Hopkins' idea as simply, "Steve."

Schweikert said while she understands the board has been criticized for moving too slowly, she again requested data showing what the impacts might be of combining just the two high schools.

"I also want to see what that would look like educationally before I would ever cast a vote," she said.

Swebilius said it is too soon to tell which schools he would support closing without first seeing the drawbacks and benefits associated with each concept. He stated it might be beneficial to consider why it costs so much more to educate students at SDHS. A recent analysis of the proposals provided by the district last month showed the price tag for SDHS students was $17,559 compared to the lowest per pupil cost on the RSU, which was $4,713 for students at Ames.

In addition, Swebilius said it made little sense to maintain two high schools in a district with a total of 2,300 students. Portland has two high schools, he said, but that district serves more than 7,000 students.

Dakin stated part of the reason Searsport's per-pupil costs are so high is related to the recent departure of Frankfort from the RSU, because the district still educates some of those students but the state does not give the district any subsidy for those students.

Bagley reminded directors that the initial selection of proposals was only for the purpose of obtaining more specific information, and nothing is carved in stone at this stage.

Catus suggested the board go with the top three plans district administrators favored at the workshop, plans five, two and three, but after Ferguson asked Hopkins to allow a change to his motion specifying those plans he declined again.

"Not if you're going to leave my proposal out," said Hopkins.

Finally, directors settled on plans three, five and "Steve."

Proposal three indicates the district would establish a regional middle school for students in grades 5-8; a regional high school for students in grades 9-12; and three regional elementary schools for students in grades Pre-K through fourth. The three regional elementary schools would be Ames, CASS and Searsport Elementary School.

Establishing three elementary schools, one middle school and one high school would result in Drinkwater, East Belfast, Nickerson and Weymouth being closed, as well as Searsport High School and Middle School.

Students in grades 9-12 at Searsport High School would go to BAHS and students in grades 6-8 at Searsport Middle School would go to Troy Howard. Students at Searsport Elementary in grade five would also go to Troy Howard.

Drinkwater students in grades Pre-K through fourth would go to to CASS and students at Drinkwater in grade five would go to Troy Howard. Students in grades five at CASS and Ames would go to Troy Howard.

Finally, students in kindergarten through fourth at Nickerson and students in Pre-K through fourth at East Belfast would go to to Searsport Elementary School.

When it came time to vote on sending those three plans to the superintendent for further analysis, all directors voted in favor except for Dakin, who was opposed.

When asked how long he needed to produce cost estimates on the plans, Carpenter said he could have preliminary numbers prepared in time for a public workshop on the topic at BAHS slated for Thursday, Jan. 9 at 6:30 p.m.

"It will allow the board and the public to ask questions and answer questions," said Bagley.