BELFAST - Plans by five municipalities to simultaneously leave Regional School Unit 20 have been approved by district officials and are a few technical details shy from approval by the state Department of Education, according to Belfast city attorney Kristin Collins. Though withdrawal is still subject to a final referendum vote in November, local committee members are already looking ahead to the details of reforming on the other side.
Collins told the City Council Tuesday that a 15-member reorganization committee with representatives from the five towns — Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Searsmont and Swanville — is finalizing a plan for a five-town school district. The goal, she said, to put two questions on the November ballot: approval of withdrawal from RSU 20, and acceptance of the reorganization plan.
Typically, a town would complete the withdrawal process before drafting a reorganization plan, Collins said. But withdrawal supporters are working on a tight timeline in hopes of opening the new district for the 2015-16 school year.
Collins said the reorganization committee has laid out 13 points to be addressed in the plan, including property ownership, the number of members on the new school board — nine is the working number, she said — and the weighting of their votes.
“Distribution of cost sharing among the towns has been a big one,” she said.
On this point, Collins said, the committee supported continuing with the current system, based on property values. Belfast would pay a larger share than other towns, she said, but the alternative, in which the surrounding towns would pay much more than they do currently, was not supported by the committee.
Mayor Walter Ash said the cost distribution has been lopsided and asked why there wasn’t an attempt to change that.
“It seems like, where we’re doing all this, this would be the time to make it more even,” he said. “We’re driving our young families out into the bedroom communities.”
Collins said the committee considered factors other than cost. She also noted that all three Belfast committee members supported the valuation-based approach.
The costs and benefits of withdrawal are not yet known. Earlier this year, the city hired Charles Lawton of the Portland-based firm Planning Decisions to consider a range of areas that would be affected by splitting from the district, including finances and demographics. On Tuesday, Collins said the report was undergoing final revisions.
A previous, failed withdrawal plan from last year involving six towns, would have saved money over the current system according to an analysis done by the Belfast withdrawal committee. However the current bid does not include Northport, the only town in the district with a high enough overall valuation to receive no state aid for education.
Asked about public input, Collins said there would be hearings the first week of September in the five towns and also in Northport. The dates and locations have not yet been determined.
What about Searsport and Stockton Springs?
Talk of withdrawal has mostly centered on the five-town group and Northport, but voters in Searsport and Stockton Springs have also initiated the withdrawal process in their respective towns. Unlike the six other towns in the district, however, they aren’t rushing to make it happen.
Anthony Bagley, chairman of Searsport’s withdrawal committee, said the group has met regularly but is waiting to see what happens in November when the other towns vote. Searsport has been working with Stockton Springs, and Bagley said at this stage it appeared that the towns would remain together. Though that could happen in two different ways.
If the five-town group and Northport successfully withdraw, Searsport and Stockton Springs would become the entirety of RSU 20.
Alternately, Searsport and Stockton Springs could withdraw. Bagley said Searsport’s withdrawal committee is looking at the feasibility of a two-town district with that possibility in mind.
“What we want to do is have that financial piece, so [it’s ready] if we need to write a withdrawal plan,” he said.
Bagley is facing the prospect of a two-town district from another angle, as chairman of the RSU 20 board of directors. Though the outcome and name could remain the same, Bagley said it wouldn’t make sense for the current RSU 20 board to plan for possibility of losing six of its eight towns.
“There are 18 members of the school board,” he said. “If we do break, it will be a totally separate board and those five communities won’t be involved.”
Contacted on Wednesday, Stockton Springs officials directed withdrawal inquiries to committee chairwoman Lesley Cosmano. Attempts to reach her prior to publication were unsuccessful.
Searsport and Stockton Springs withdrawal committees will hold a joint workshop on August 13 at the Stockton Springs Town Office, 7 p.m.
The Belfast-based five-town reorganization committee meets next on Thursday, August 7 at City Hall, 6:30 p.m.
The Northport RSU 20 withdraw committee also meets on Thursday, August 7 at the Northport Town Hall, 6 p.m.
Ethan Andrews can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org