Frankfort residents challenge vote to close elementary school

Expelled BAHS student re-admitted, board mulls expulsion of SDHS youth
By Tanya Mitchell | Mar 23, 2011
Frankfort Elementary School

Searsport —  

Sharon Fields of Frankfort addressed the RSU 20 school board for less than five minutes Tuesday night, March 22, and in her brief statement she offered the board an ultimatum regarding the board’s vote in favor of closing Frankfort Elementary School.

Fields, who spoke during the public participation portion of the meeting, told the board that “in light of the miscalculation of votes taken by the board on February 8 to close the Frankfort Elementary School,” residents in the town have consulted with an attorney who specializes in education law.

During that consultation, Fields said, the attorney noted the RSU 20 board had failed to achieve the two-thirds supermajority that is required under state law. In essence, Fields said, the motion to move ahead with the process of closing the Frankfort school failed.

The district’s rules of order for the board of directors states that “a motion will be adopted or carried if it receives a majority of the weighted vote of those present and voting.” According to the state law which specifically relates to voting to close a school, however, "a school... may not be closed unless closure of the school is approved at a regular or special meeting of the regional school unit board by an affirmative vote of two-thirds of the elected membership or voting power of the regional school unit board."

Fields went on to ask the board to rescind its current proposal to the state Department of Education to close the Frankfort school, a request that was followed by a warning.

“Failure to do so may result in legal action against RSU 20,” said Fields.

Gabriel Baker, a Frankfort resident and former SAD 56 board member, attended Tuesday’s meeting as part of a group of people who turned out at the meeting in support of the comments Fields offered. Baker provided a copy of the minutes from the Feb. 8 meeting, a tally of the vote taken at that meeting as well as a calculation of the vote under the district’s weighted vote system.

According to the materials Baker provided, the 12-4-0 vote consisted of four votes against the motion. Those voting against the closure were board members Joyce Chamberlin, Denise Dakin, Orya Shomron and Twyler Webster.

Under the weighted vote system — which is based on the population of each of the nine district towns — Chamberlin’s decision is worth 1,359 votes, which reflects the population of Searsmont, the town she represents. Shomron, of Belfast, added another 1,134 votes to the negative tally, a figure that represents one-sixth of the city’s population. Belfast is allotted six representatives, though two of those seats are not currently filled. Dakin, who is one of two Stockton Springs representatives, added 826 votes to the total. Webster, the sole representative for Frankfort, kicked in another 1,052 votes, bringing the total votes against the measure to 4,371.

The 12 board members who voted for the motion to close the school were Jean Dube of Morrill (906 votes), Robert Anderson of Belfast (1,134), Peggy Andrews of Belfast (1,134), Tony Bagley of Searsport (888), Stephen Hopkins of Belmont (884), Percy King of Searsport (888), Stephen Kirkpatrick of Belfast (1,134), Christopher Krause of Stockton Springs (826), Darren Philbrick of Searsport (888), Gerald Reid of Northport (804) Debora Riley of Northport (804) and Alexa Schweikert of Swanville (1,451). The total number of votes in favor of the motion totaled 11,741.

With the total amount of votes allowed for all 18 board seats coming in at 18,380, the documents Baker provided suggested the board failed to achieve the two-thirds majority required for a school closure vote under state law. That is because the total votes in favor of the measure came in at 11,741, about 500 votes shy of the 12,241.08 that would be required in order for an 18-member board to pass the motion.

But with the absence of two Belfast representatives, the total number of votes for the existing 16-member board stands at 16,112, in which case the 11,741 vote tally would be enough to exceed the two-thirds majority. Using the lower figure that reflects the absence of two Belfast representatives, two-thirds of 16,112 comes in at 10,741.

Fields’ allegations regarding the vote calculation drew no reaction from the directors or RSU 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux until near the end of the regular meeting, when Webster asked for some feedback on what Fields had to say.

“I will be investigating that tomorrow,” said Mailloux. “I’ll be following up on that tomorrow with our own attorney to make sure.”

Wednesday morning, March 23, Mailloux said he is confident that the Feb. 8 vote to close the Frankfort School was valid.

"We contacted our legal folks before the vote to find out where we stood without those two Belfast members, and based on the advice we got from our attorney, we are confident that the vote is valid and it meets the letter of the law," he said.

Mailloux said he contacted the district's attorneys Wednesday morning, and he is expecting a legal statement outlining the district's position on the matter.

Where the matter goes from here, said Mailloux, depends on how Frankfort residents decide to respond.

"I can appreciate their position," said Mailloux of the Frankfort residents.

Mailloux said he regretted that the issue was not brought to his attention prior to Tuesday night's board meeting, because he said he could have provided the response from the district's attorneys at the meeting.

On the topic of the school closure, Mailloux said at Tuesday's meeting that he met with Frankfort parents last Tuesday night, March 15. Through a straw vote, Mailloux said the parents who were present overwhelmingly indicated that they preferred their children to be transferred to Searsport Elementary School.

In other news, directors agreed to re-admit a Belfast Area High School student whom they had voted to expel at their March 8 meeting. The youth was subject to the expulsion hearing because, as Mailloux had previously explained, the student had violated the district’s substance abuse policy.

The student appeared before the board with his parents, and after a closed-door session that spanned nearly 30 minutes, directors voted in favor of re-admitting the youth.

Normally, under district policy, an expelled student must wait at least one month from when they are expelled until when they apply for readmission. However, an exception can be made under "extraordinary circumstances," according to the district policy.

When the expulsion hearing was held at the March 8 meeting for this particular student, school officials initially believed the board had failed to get enough votes to expel the student. Officials believed they needed a three-fifths majority to expel a student; however, it was later realized the three-fifths majority was required only on the vote to go into a closed-door session (the standard procedure for expulsion hearings), and that a simple majority was all that was needed to expel a student.

Since the student and his family had initially been told the expulsion vote failed, and were later notified that it had in fact passed, Mailloux said he felt that qualified as an extraordinary circumstance.

Riley, who served as the chairman in Dube’s absence, declared the motion to re-admit the student had passed. She then turned to the youth and said, “You’ll be able to go back to school tomorrow.”

Following the vote, Mailloux said there will be another expulsion hearing because of another incident involving drugs. The student involved in the latest drug policy violation attends Searsport District High School, Mailloux said.

To that end, Mailloux asked the board to hold a special meeting Tuesday, March 29, at 6 p.m. for the sole purpose of the expulsion hearing. Mailloux said in conjunction with the hearing, the board would block out the first portion of the meeting to obtain training on expulsion hearings from an expert on the subject.

Mailloux said in this case, the student involved “has fully admitted their involvement,” and that the youth has since been suspended for five days. Since this week is a three-day school week due to in-service days scheduled for Thursday, March 24, and Friday, March 25, the student’s suspension is in effect until next Tuesday’s hearing.

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