City councilors agreed to interview two firms that responded to a request to analyze the impact of withdrawing from Regional School Unit 20.

In November 2013, city officials discussed hiring a consultant after two firms, both based in Portland, responded to a Request for Proposals issued by the city. The firms estimated the scope of work as outlined in the RFP would cost between $20,000 and $70,000 to complete.

The two firms that responded to the RFP were Purdy Powers and Company and Planning Decisions, Inc.

However, councilors decided to hold off on hiring a consultant until potential withdrawal options were identified.

On Tuesday, Jan. 21, councilors listened to an update from Belfast attorney Kristin Collins about the status of the withdrawal effort. Collins said she has had discussions with the towns in RSU 20 about the possibility of pursuing legislation that would allow for the dissolution of the district.

Collins said one of the advantages to creating a bill to dissolve the district is that language can be included that would allow for the division of property and other matters that have to be addressed when a town is trying to withdraw.

At the same time discussions are ongoing about the future of RSU 20, Collins said the Belfast withdrawal committee is pushing for a June vote to exit the district. If the withdrawal vote is successful in June, it would allow for a second vote to be held in November to form a new RSU, she said.

All eight towns in the district, Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Swanville are looking at withdrawing from the district.

City Councilor Eric Sanders, who also serves on Belfast's withdrawal committee, said hiring an independent firm to complete an audit would help answer questions regarding the impact of leaving the district. Councilor Mary Mortier then asked if the information the consultant would need to complete the audit would be available.

Collins said much of the information a consultant would need to complete an audit would come from the district.

Sanders suggested it may be beneficial to have RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter attend the next council meeting to discuss the three consolidation plans the district is considering.

As discussion continued, City Manager Joseph Slocum encouraged councilors to participate in the interview process with the two firms that replied to the city's RFP. He also suggested setting parameters as to the number of scenarios the consultant will look at when conducting the audit.

Collins noted a withdrawal plan needs to be completed by the end of February in order to meet the deadline to hold a vote in June.

“You may not make it,” Slocum responded.

Collins said waiting until November to vote on leaving the district would mean the withdrawal would not take effect until 2016. By that time, other towns may have withdrawn from the district and a consolidation of RSU 20 may also occur by then.

Because of the cost of the audit, Mortier said she doesn't want to spend money on short-term piece of work that is “only good for six months to a year.” Slocum cautioned, however, that some long-term factors would be difficult to calculate. As an example, he said the state will not provide long-term contribution projections.

Collins said she envisions a two-step process regarding the audit. She said the first phase would look at the immediate impact of withdrawing from RSU 20. The second phase could address more long-term issues, such as declining student populations.

Mayor Walter Ash said he is struggling with trying to understand exactly why the city should withdraw.

“What are we going after?” he asked. “Is it money? What are we actually looking to do here?”

Councilor Mike Hurley said due to the cuts in state funding, the district had to cut programs in the schools. Going forward, he said, the district will have to choose between keeping buildings with not many students in them open, or to continue to cut programs.

Ash responded by saying those decisions, cutting programs or closing schools, should be made by the school board.

After further discussion, Slocum said the council could hold a work session Thursday, Jan. 30, beginning at 6:30 p.m. for the purpose of conducting interviews with the two firms that replied to the city's RFP.

The next Belfast withdrawal committee meeting was scheduled for Monday, Jan. 27, at 5 p.m.