The Regional School Unit 20 board of directors got its first glance at preliminary financial benefits and drawbacks to three school consolidation proposals Tuesday, Jan. 14, a presentation that came in the midst of news that all eight district towns are now considering leaving the RSU.

Superintendent Brian Carpenter delivered cost estimates for courses of actions three, five and "Steve" to the directors in a packed Searsport District Middle and High School cafetorium. The financial data outlined how each plan might impact staffing, as well as how those potential staff changes could affect the possible savings associated with each scenario.

The presentation came just days after residents in Searsport and Stockton Springs began gathering signatures to explore withdrawing from the RSU, a movement that means all eight towns are now considering severing ties with the district.

Savings vs. costs

Course of action three establishes a regional middle school for students in grades five through eight; a regional high school for students in grades nine through 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 nine through 12 at Searsport High School would go to to BAHS and students in grades six through eight 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.

Carpenter said the district currently has 241 people working under teacher contracts at a total cost of $13,159,675, and that proposal number three would reduce that force to 214 and one quarter. That brought the salary-related cost down to about $11,783,750, with Carpenter noting details regarding staff retirements or changes in insurances remain unknown at this time. The district's costs for educational support staff would fall from the current figure of $5,356,856 down to $3,381,751.

The total estimated savings for course of action three is about $3 million, Carpenter said, but that savings may be curbed to the tune of an estimated $390,000 due to the need to upgrade technology and supporting infrastructure at some schools.

The fifth reorganization proposal indicates the district would keep the Belfast and Searsport high schools open, while Troy Howard would educate students in grades five through eight. Ames and CASS would educate students Pre-K through fourth grade. Students in East Belfast and at Nickerson would attend school at Searsport Elementary and Searsport High/Middle School. The Belfast high school would educate students in grades nine through 12. Drinkwater, East Belfast, Nickerson and Weymouth would be closed. Students at Drinkwater in Pre-K through fourth grade would go to CASS, while students at Drinkwater in grade five would go to Troy Howard along with fifth grade students from CASS. Grade five students at Searsport Elementary School would go to Troy Howard. Weymouth students in Pre-K to first grade would go to Ames, while students in grade five at Ames would go to Troy Howard. Students in kindergarten through fourth grade at Nickerson and students in Pre-K through fourth grade would go to Searsport Elementary School. Fifth grade students at Nickerson and East Belfast would attend school at Searsport Middle School.

Because the changes would result in a staffing increase of about 10 staff positions, Carpenter said the fifth course of action carries an estimated $650,000 increase in that line, but support-staff levels could be reduced from the current roster of 179 down to 132.5. Overall, that proposal could mean a savings of $1.39 million on the staffing end, but Carpenter said the technology needs might reduce those savings by as much as $348,500. Carpenter attributed that expense to the need to expand the use of laptops for fifth graders who may be learning in academies alongside sixth graders who are already using the laptops.

"There are costs associated with this," Carpenter said.

Course of action "Steve," named for its originator, RSU 20 Director Stephen Hopkins, called for closing the Weymouth School in Morrill and sending those students to the Ames School in Searsmont, closing the Nickerson School in Swanville and sending those children to Searsport Elementary and closing Searsport District Middle and High Schools and sending those students to Troy Howard Middle School and Belfast Area High School.

In this plan, teaching staff is reduced to 229 and one quarter positions and support staff levels would drop to 117.5 positions, which adds up to an estimated $1.8 million in salary-related savings. Carpenter said technology costs could reach $265,000 when factoring in expanding the use of laptops to fifth graders, but Hopkins objected to that figure because adding those devices was not part of his original proposal.

"In my proposal [the fifth graders] wouldn't be going to Troy Howard so they wouldn't need it," he said.

Assistant Superintendent John McDonald confirmed that there is currently no use of one-on-one devices in the elementary schools.

"Then there's no expansion," said Carpenter.

Carpenter's presentation also included an explanation of how existing debts on school buildings might impact the district.

Director Christopher Hyk sought clarification on that issue, asking Carpenter if remaining debts on any closed school would still have to remain on the RSU books, and Carpenter said that was the case. In addition, the state no longer pays a portion of the debt for closed schools that are no longer used for educational purposes.

Searching for answers

McDonald said the central office has received many requests for information on the consolidation topic, and encouraged residents to continue to come to the administration for answers "rather than get the wrong information over the fence."

"We want you to talk to us," he said. "We don't want to shut you out."

Director Valerie Mank said the board should begin to seek public input as soon as possible, and suggested posting the proposals onto a survey-oriented website in order to begin gathering comments.

Board Chairman Tony Bagley said the first of many opportunities for the public to ask questions about the proposals will be Tuesday, Jan. 21, at Belfast Area High School. The forum will begin at 6:30 p.m.

Bagley encouraged his fellow directors to review the data for each proposal over the next week and to be ready to provide answers at the forum.

"That is their meeting," said Bagley of the public.

Bagley said the board would then take the consolidation concepts to each of the remaining seven towns in the district before directors will come back and decide which proposal, if any, to pursue further.

Director Charles Grey asked when the board might take action on the proposals, and Carpenter said it could be as soon as the last board meeting in February.

"It also depends on the board," added Hopkins.

And then there were eight

Among those in attendance were some of the residents involved in the latest withdrawal movement in Searsport and Stockton Springs, and some addressed the board Tuesday night.

Amber Stanhope, a Searsport resident, parent and SDHS graduate, said of the three consolidation concepts the board is considering, two of them would move students out of Searsport Middle and High School. Those are more potential sacrifices she said her community should not have to make.

"Frankfort's gone. Stockton is closed. Everyone who's here tonight is sitting in the only building we have left," she said. "… My elementary school daughters ride the bus with high school seniors."

Stanhope said while she is not sure withdrawing is the right thing to do for her community, she is "at a loss."

"I know that what we're doing isn't working," she said. Stanhope then suggested the RSU dissolve, a comment that drew applause.

Veronica Magnan of Stockton Springs said any consolidation concepts considered in the near future should exclude the closure of the Searsport complex, especially if the Belfast withdrawal effort results in "driving away Searsport and Stockton Springs."

She said the two towns could successfully gather enough voter signatures to get a legal stay to keep the schools open, but added, "it should not come to that."

"It's time for the Belfast members of the RSU 20 to give the same time consideration to the communities of Searsport and Stockton Springs that they have done for the Belfast withdrawal committee and the new think tank," she said.

Later in the meeting, Hopkins asked Carpenter to clarify the process for closing a school because he said there has been a lot of misinformation circulating in the public about how it must be done.

Carpenter said the board would take the first vote to close a school, and that vote must be by a two-thirds majority. Then the district must prepare a report for the state showing the estimated cost savings of the closure. Then the town that faces the school closure will weigh in at the ballot box and if residents opt not to close the school, the town must pay what the district would have saved in order to keep it open.

"This can go on for two years," said Carpenter.

After two years, the board can vote on the closure again and the process starts over.

"Myself, a principal, an assistant superintendent, we do not close schools," he said. "… The superintendent does not have that power."

He also said the board decides on how the district would dispose of a closed school building.

Grey asked Carpenter if there is a "real urgency" to come up with a consolidation plan, and Carpenter said there is because it takes time to get the necessary data together for the state report.

Carpenter followed up with a cautionary message about what the board would face for the upcoming budget season should it opt not to move forward with some kind of consolidation.

"You're going to have to find cuts," he said. "The budget will not be flat."