Former SAD 34 towns planning post-election pitch

RSU 20 withdrawal

Timing aims to include Belmont re-vote
Posted:  
Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - 11:00am
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A committee representing six towns proposing to withdraw from Regional School Unit 20 is close to initiating negotiations with the district for the physical assets — including school buildings, equipment and buses — they hope will follow them into new school district based on the former SAD 34. Pictured above is Edna Drinkwater Elementary School in Northport. (Photo by Ethan Andrews)

BELFAST – Representatives of the six towns making a pitch to leave Regional School Unit 20 expect to present a plan to the school board shortly after the elections. 

Voters in Belfast, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont and Swanville have independently approved petitioning the district and the Maine Department of Education to leave the district. Belmont is set to revote on the issue on Election Day following the state's rejection of an earlier affirmative vote.

Prior to a 2008 consolidation, the six municipalities comprised School Administrative District 34, and proponents of the withdrawal hope to effectively decouple their old district from the towns of the former SAD 56 (Searsport, Stockton Springs and Frankfort). State law requires the towns to form separate committees and petition individually for withdrawal, but as they prepare to approach the district, the six towns have increasingly coordinated their efforts.

On Monday, the Belfast committee, which has led the withdrawal effort, met with committee members from a number of the six towns and tentatively set a date of Nov. 9 to take a plan to RSU board of directors. By then, they hope Belmont's vote will be official and the group will have finalized its seven member negotiating team, composed on one member from each town committee and Belfast attorney Kristin Collins.

Withdrawal plans would also be submitted to the Maine Department of Education. Committee members met with Deputy Commissioner of Education Jim Rier last week in Augusta, and Collins said the withdrawal plan would likely get a quick stamp of approval.

"They have a whole team set up and they can approve it in a few days," she said.

In the meantime, Collins suggested that committees in the five outlying towns schedule public information meetings to let residents know where the process stands.

State approval of the withdrawal plans — the law requires individual plans, though Collins said these would be based on a template agreement approved by all the towns and essentially be identical — opens the door for negotiations with the district over school buildings, buses, equipment and other physical assets of the district should voters ultimately approve the withdrawal.

That vote would likely be held during the June 2013 primary election, Collins said. 

A vote on an agreement to form the new six-town RSU would likely be held in November of the same year and voters would later need to elect representatives to the new school board, she said.

Based on preliminary cost estimates drawn up by the Belfast committee and an estimate of state funding for a new six town district obtained from the Department of Education, Belfast committee member Eric Sanders said he expects the difference between the tax burden under the old and new districts will be about the same.
 
Members of the town committees are scheduled to meet with former RSU 20 and SAD 34 superintendent Bruce Mailloux on Nov. 1 to discuss projected revenue in the newly created district, an area for which they do not currently have figures.

Looking ahead to negotiations the district, the commitee members broached one of the more potentially awkward clauses in the state-governed withdrawal process, the requirement that town withdrawal committees include one acting school board member.

Debora Riley, one of two Northport representatives on the RSU 20 board, who also sits on her town's withdrawal committee, asked about her dual role when the withdrawal group is negotiating with the school board.

"I tend to think this is all crafted with the idea that there would be a go-between, between the board representative member of the withdrawal committee and the board," said Collins. "And the idea is things would be more back and forth and more friendly."

Riley saw her role in simple terms. "I have to be clear that I'm representing Northport in the negotiations," she said. "Then [after the negotiations] I go back to being a board member."

Collins thought Riley could potentially serve both roles.

"I don't look at this as a conflict of interest situation at all," she said. "A conflict of intrest is when you are supporting something that you are personally benefitted by, financially."

Nor would it technically be a matter of bias, Collins said, which only applies in a judicial setting, as in a board of review. Instead she likened it to a contract where an individual working for a company could sell something to that company without a conflict.

An all-town meeting of RSU 20 withdrawal committees will be held Nov. 8 at 6:30 p.m. at Belfast City Hall. By then they hope a handful of missing pieces will have fallen into place.

"We'll have the Belmont vote. We'll have the Swanville person [to represent the town on the negotiating committee]," said Sanders. "It will be: alright, we're going to submit this. It should be a short meeting."

Penobscot Bay Pilot reporter Ethan Andrews can be reached at ethanandrews@penbaypilot.com