NORTHPORT - With a large tax base for its 185 school age residents, Northport receives no money through the state’s Essential Programs and Services school funding formula, making it the one town in RSU 20 that may not be hanging on the actions of the districts two biggest players — the school board and the city of Belfast.
At Northport’s most recent RSU 20 withdrawal committee meeting, discussion centered around the potential of converting Edna Drinkwater Elementary into a town-run K-8 school, managed in collaboration with neighboring Union 69, the district for primary schools in Appleton, Hope and Lincolnville.
The withdrawal is far from a done deal and many details of Northport’s plan are still unknown, but all four members of the committee expressed confidence that the town would benefit from splitting with RSU 20.
“For the money we’re paying for our students, there’s a lot more we could get,” said Chairwoman Sandy Wallace.
Where the cost per student in the Appleton, Hope and Lincolnville is comparable to what Northport pays into RSU 20, Wallace said those towns are able to offer more programs than RSU 20 provides.
Given a choice between offering more services and cutting taxes, Mark Humphreys, Northport selectman who serves on the town’s withdrawal committee, said Northport residents would likely invest the extra money in the school.
“I think people feel that education is very important,” he said. “Even people who are whining that their taxes are going up just want to know that it’s being spent well.”
Late last year, the Northport withdrawal committee met with representatives of Union 69 and reached an informal agreement for Northport to buy in to the shared administration but remain separate from Union 69 — joining the district would require an act of the legislature.
“There should be cost savings for all of the towns for the central office,” said Mark Lynch, the citizen representative on the committee. “And we could possibly share specialty staff.”
Wallace said Northport students would likely be tuitioned to Belfast for high school, but under certain circumstances might also have a choice of secondary school. She noted that the Hancock County town of Surry, orphaned during the statewide consolidation of school districts in 2009, had school choice prior to joining School Union 93.
All of this, of course, hinges on the town successfully withdrawing from the district.
For that piece, the Northport committee is looking to Frankfort, which successfully withdrew from RSU 20 in 2012 and has since joined the Hampden, Winterport and Newburgh district RSU 22.
The plan differs from the one town officials settled on in a previous withdrawal movement, which saw six towns of the former SAD 34 attempting to withdraw together as a roundabout way to undo the 2009 consolidation that paired them with the three towns of neighboring SAD 56.
That plan won broad popular support in all six towns but was killed after a final validation vote in June 2013 fell short of a minimum voter turnout clause.
The coordinated effort was unique in the state and was lauded by supporters for potential cost savings and a return to a system many believed had been better.
“They almost made it sound romantic last time around,” said Debra Riley, who serves as the RSU 20 board representative on Northport’s withdrawal committee. “It was not a romantic relationship for Northport. They had very little voice in what was going on.”
Other towns considering withdrawal, including Searsmont, Morrill and Belmont — Swanville has received a petition but residents have not yet voted to start the process — don’t have a comparable out. They are either not close enough to another district, don’t have their own school, or don’t have the tax base to operate their school without outside support.
In Belfast, the largest municipality and stakeholder in RSU20, recent discussions centered around how to avoid withdrawal and how towns in the district might be able to keep their elementary schools while consolidating the middle and high schools in Belfast and Searsport.
At a meeting Thursday of the Think Tank, a study group organized by Belfast officials with members from each of the RSU 20 towns, Northport’s representative Sandy Wallace was mostly silent. Other members spoke of the town’s departure as a near-given in an equation that RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter recently summed up as having “a lot of moving parts.”
Think Tank members left the meeting with the intention of drafting a memo to the RSU 20 Board “strongly encouraging” the consolidation of the high schools and middle schools and allowing each town in the district to keep its elementary school if they can pay for it.
While many towns are now questioning their withdrawal efforts, or wanting to slow down and see what the district comes up with for consolidation, current plans on the table only seem to strengthen the case for Northport’s exit.
Lynch, who initially joined the Northport withdrawal committee to “get things under control” financially, said he has come to share the committee’s belief in the educational benefits of leaving the district, and the key role of the local elementary school. Two of the three consolidation plans scheduled to be looked at by RSU 20 would close Drinkwater altogether.
“Our goal is to keep the school open and functioning.” said Wallace.
Lynch added, “And functioning well.”
The RSU 20 Board is scheduled to meet Tuesday, Jan. 14, at 6:30 p.m. at Searsport District Middle School.
Ethan Andrews can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org