In RSU 20

Belfast withdrawal effort draws skepticism from board

By Tanya Mitchell | Oct 16, 2012
Source: File image

Belfast — Some members of the RSU 20 Board of Directors indicated during the regular directors' meeting at Belfast Area High School Tuesday, Oct. 9, that they have reservations about the ongoing effort by six former SAD 34 towns to withdraw from RSU 20.

At the meeting, Belfast Withdrawal Committee member Susan Woods and committee attorney Kristin Collins said the committee has put together a draft that it hoped to have approved at its meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 10. The idea, Collins said, is to create a new district consisting of the six former SAD 34 towns which would possibly share central office services, including the superintendent, for the first year of operation.

"All real estate and personal property formerly held by SAD 34 would go with the new unit," said Collins.

All property of the former SAD 56 would remain with the RSU, Collins said.

The aim is to have residents of the former SAD 34 towns vote on the withdrawal plans in the spring and to start up the new school unit July 1, 2013. High school students served by the new unit would have the right to remain at their school until they graduate, Collins said, and younger students would be permitted to continue attending their former schools for the first year of the withdrawal process.

Director Alan Wood asked Collins and Woods how they know the figures used in the draft plan are accurate.

"The citizens are going to decide based on that," said Wood.

"Anything we're dealing with is going to be an estimation, of course," said Collins.

Collins said the committee has the benefit of having former RSU 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux as a consultant, and noted that Woods has an accounting background. Woods said the figures used in the draft plan are based on the number of staff members in the former SAD 34 versus the former SAD 56, and that the committee is considering using an independent consultant to ensure that the numbers are "as accurate as possible."

"We tend to be conservative, using the higher numbers," said Woods.

RSU 20 Board Chairman Tony Bagley suggested that costs might not be the biggest issue when it comes to arriving at accurate figures.

"When it comes to budget time, it's not the expenditures that are getting us, it's the revenues that are killing us," said Bagley, noting that federal and state subsidies have dwindled significantly in recent years.

"We're going to do a similar report, as best we can, on revenues," said Collins.

Collins also said a contingency clause in the plan voids a withdrawal if municipalities representing at least 85 percent of the total student population in the six towns don't vote to withdraw.

Bagley recalled when the board took flak over the reorganization concept — which involved closing some outlying elementary schools and moving to one middle and high school — that the district pitched as a way to close the budget gap last year. The idea got a cool reception from the public at a series of forums held throughout the district, and Bagley said issues like educational differences and lengthy bus rides for some students were what led to the concept's demise. That said, Bagley criticized the committee for promoting a withdrawal plan that could mean some students would have a long bus ride and be forced to attend school several towns away.

If, for example, residents in Belmont opt not to withdraw and decide to stay in the RSU, children in that town would likely be bused to Searsport Elementary School in order to attend classes in their own district.

"I cannot fathom the idea of busing a kindergarten student [from Belmont] all the way to Searsport," he said.

"It's up to the parents who are voting on this to decide," said Collins, who noted that if those residents vote "no," their children would be bused to Searsport "as a consequence of the plan." She also said she would "hate to see all this work, all this effort" thrown out in the end.

"To exclude one town, I think, is very unfair to the students," said Bagley. "I would not endorse anything that wasn't 100 percent."

"It's all based on revenues and expenditures, and at the end of the day, how much is needed to make this new unit work," said Collins.

Director Dorothy Odell sought clarification of the risks involved in the withdrawal process.

"So there are two risks. One, that the children might be bused for an unconscionable distance, and two, that a bunch of adults might have wasted their time," said Odell.

While updating the board on a recent meeting about Maine's withdrawal laws that included himself, RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter and Drummond and Woodsum attorney Dick Spencer, Bagley said he was unable to learn much about how best to approach the ongoing process.

"Nobody has the true answers," he said.

Comments (4)
Posted by: Harold Richardson | Oct 17, 2012 15:01

Hi Gene-As far as I know, I have never met any of the people involved in any of these discussions.  I have no kid in these schools and no dog in this fight.  I am not anti-education and I am not an anti-tax person.  The way I understood this to work was that each town voted on whether to pursue this path or not.  Each town that did vote to do this has to follow the rules laid out by the state.  It seems to me that some sour grapes are being placed at the feet of the Belfast committee and that's not fair.  I have no issue with the City hiring legal help with this-the alternative would be to do something the wrong way and have to redo things like a couple of the towns have had to do already and have a revote.  I do think the issue of day care is a canard.  There is no way that can be profitable and the main purpose of that is to put bodies in the declining schools to keep them open.  If that's the way it goes, I do hope some kids that need special help can benefit from it.  When we spend money on heat and maintenance on half empty schools we are short changing the taxpayer but more importantly shortchanging the kids by wasting money.  I would rather have Belfast go it alone and take in all the other kids by tuition only.  That is not even being considered so in the end it really doesn't matter to me which way this goes.  I do look forward to seeing the final proposal from the committee though.  At some point the school board will have to decide how low enrollment can go before making the tough decisions that need to be made.     

Posted by: Gene Newton | Oct 17, 2012 11:38

Harold,  Here are a couple facts for you to know and base your opinions.  As far as wasted time.  Each town was forced to nominate a city/town council member/select person to serve whether they supported the issue or not.  Each town was forced to have a school board member serve on the commitee (in small towns, that means the one member) no matter what their view.  The other two committee members in each town was comprised of a volunteer from the community and a member of the petioning group- so those two definately volunteer their time.  Each town had to authorize, via the vote, their town to spend up to a specific amount to cover the cost to the town and to the committee of exploring and creating a withdrawal plan.  Belfast through their vote authorized spending $50,000.  I have been present during several Belfast WD Committee meetings and numerous times the committee has volunteered services including those of the city's attorney to the other petitioning towns like Morrill and Searsmont, etc.  Regarding the daycare with in the school- the plan would be for those programs to subsidize to RSU and not the other way around.  At worst, they could be run by the RSU on a break even basis that would better utilize the space and provide the district with increased ability to identify children with need and provide early interevntions.

Posted by: Harold Richardson | Oct 17, 2012 10:53

As I understand the process, the committee is not operating in a vacuum.  This is not some rogue group of people acting on their own.  The citizens voted overwhelmingly to go thru this process.  The committees charge is to develop the best plan for withdrawal.  From what I've seen, they've done a very good job trying to do that so far.  The time wasted if there is any, is by these people that agreed to volunteer their time.  I'm not sure what money has been wasted so far.  I will agree that it seems that the biggest issues will not be corrected by returning to the prior arrangement but that still remains to be seen.  Maybe we could wait to see the final proposal.  As a taxpayer in Belfast, I don't mind at all paying to educate the kids in Belfast.  It does bother me if I am in fact paying money to keep schools open that are half empty in some of these smaller towns.  This plan about filling these schools up with 3 and 4 year old day care is nothing but an avoidance of the real issue of shrinking enrollments.  Instead of paying to support half empty schools, it seems to me that we will now be subsidizing day care for people that live out of town.         

Posted by: CAPT ALBERT STEVENS | Oct 17, 2012 09:29

At this point I wonder what "problem" is being solved by undoing the consolidation?It seems that the issues of (too) small elementary schools, shrinking populations, low revenues, and poor proficiency rates are not solved by undoing consolidation. Those problems were there when we were SAD 56 & SAD 34. What if the board and this committee put this much time and attention into studying what reform efforts would increase our graduation rates, improve accountability to parents, and improve our student's educational outcomes? This effort reflects the provincial rivalries between towns that are so profoundly unproductive in our difficult economic times. We should move on to create a stronger RSU and not waste more time and money on this.

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