City waiting on hiring consultant until withdrawal options are identified

By Ben Holbrook | Nov 22, 2013

Belfast — Belfast officials are opting to wait on paying for an independent analysis to determine the impact of withdrawal until it has identified options to present to a consultant.

Over the past couple of months, the city has talked about hiring consultants to complete an independent analysis that would look at the impact of withdrawing from Regional School Unit 20, both in terms of the financial and educational impact of leaving the district.

On Tuesday, Nov. 19, City Manager Joseph Slocum said the city received two responses in regards to a Request for Proposal the city submitted seeking to hire a consultant. While the limited response did not come as a surprise to Slocum, he asked councilors for direction on whether he should move forward with interviewing the potential consultant or if the city should look at alternative options.

Slocum also explained the city was approached by Morrill and Searsmont regarding Belfast's efforts to hire a consultant. He said both towns stated they would like to participate financially and provide some guidance if the city finds a firm to assess the withdrawal options.

The two consulting firms that responded to the city's RFP were Purdy Powers and Company, a South Portland-based firm, and Portland-based Planning Decisions, Inc.

Estimates provided by both firms ranged from a low of about $20,000 from Planning Decisions, Inc., to a high of $70,000 from Purdy Powers and Company. Both firms would provide an analysis that would take into consideration what would happen if Belfast remained in RSU 20, the impact of reforming School Administrative District 34 or what a stand-alone district would look like.

Belfast attorney Kristin Collins, who provides legal advice for the city's withdrawal committee, explained the withdrawal committee is looking at forming a 15-member panel that would identify a few potential school district structures.

As an example, Collins said one such structure could involve the towns operating their own elementary and middle schools, but then students would attend a regional high school together.

The options the 15-member committee identifies could then be provided to a consultant in order to assess the financial impact of the various scenarios.

“What do you ask somebody to look at if you don't know what the options are?” Collins asked.

Slocum noted that one of the challenges facing every town in RSU 20 is the declining student enrollment numbers. Councilor Mike Hurley commented that having a school district that people feel will provide a quality education is an economic development issue for the city.

“The thing we're finding is that people are choosing not to move here because of the school district,” he said.

Councilor Nancy Hamilton also noted that declining student enrollments means that younger people are moving out of the area, which is also a concern.

As discussion continued, Slocum asked for clarification regarding the closing of a school. Collins explained that the board of directors can close a school with a 2/3 vote and then the issue goes to a referendum vote in the town where the school would be closed.

If residents in that town vote to keep the school open, the town must then pay the additional costs, or what the district would have saved by closing the school, for keeping the building open.

Collins also stressed that the withdrawal committee is tasked with creating a plan to leave RSU 20 — it cannot create a plan to reorganize the district.

As discussion concluded, Slocum said he would hold off on interviewing the consultants until the 15-member panel is created and has a chance to identify possible options for withdrawal.

The next Belfast withdrawal committee meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 26, in City Hall.

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Ben Holbrook
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Ben Holbrook is a reporter for The Republican Journal covering general news.

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