BELFAST – After a fraught loss at the polls in June, activists from six Waldo County municipalities are launching a second campaign to withdraw from Regional School Unit 20.
A bill in the Maine Legislature may also eliminate the clause that killed the last withdrawal bid.
Town officials in Belfast, Belmont and Northport received valid petitions this week that would put a withdrawal question on an upcoming ballot. Of the three, only Belfast has scheduled a special referendum, which will be held on August 20. Select boards in Belmont and Northport have not met since their respective petitions were submitted.
In Morrill, Searsmont and Swanville petitions are rumored to be circulating, but as of late last week town officials had yet to see them.
Morrill resident Anne Ambrose who is leading a withdrawal petition drive in her town said Thursday that she had roughly half the required signatures. Her hope was to put the question before voters at the July 30 special referendum on the school district’s 2013-14 budget, though she wasn’t sure there would be enough time.
Time has been perhaps the most persistent adversary of the RSU 20 withdrawal movement.
The original bid started in early 2012 with petitions like those recently logged in Belfast, Belmont and Northport. From there, it took municipal committees a full year of steady work to get a final plan to the ballot box. The process was made more complicated by the fact that there was no precedent or statutory roadmap for multiple towns withdrawing en masse.
What advocates really wanted was to undo the forced consolidation in 2009 of Belfast-based School Administrative District 34 with neighboring SAD 56, a three-town district that then included Searsport, Stockton Springs and Frankfort (Frankfort left RSU 20 this year to join neighboring SAD 22).
State law, however, does not make any mention of deconsolidation, only withdrawal.
As a workaround, the six-towns attempted to withdraw simultaneously using a plan drafted by in Belfast and customized for each town. The coordinated effort was unique in the state. If the withdrawal had been successful, the six towns would have sought to form a new school distirct.
Supporters gambled on a June ballot in hopes of having the new school district running for the 2014-15 school year. In the final tally, the withdrawal won by a wide margin but the total number of votes fell short of a clause requring voter turnout equal to 50-percent of the number in the last gubernatorial election.
Speaking on Thursday, Belfast city attorney Kristin Collins said a new vote on the withdrawal question could come back to voters by November as some supporters have hoped, but only if everything goes off without a hitch.
“There’s really no leeway in that time frame,” she said. “If the committee is going to look at any more options it’s pretty much guaranteed we won’t make it onto the November ballot.”
Another factor is whether the six towns will attempt a coordinated withdrawal again. The previous plan included a caveat that that the withdrawal would not be valid unless it was approved by all six towns. Collins and others have since said that the clause probably added an unnecessary hurdle and might not be included in a new withdrawal plan.
Ambrose of Morrill said her town wouldn't have options outside of a six-town movement. The same would probably hold true for every town except Belfast where some advocates have floated the pre-SAD 34 idea of going it alone.
Collins didn’t rule out the possibility of Belfast withdrawing by itself but said a proposal for a single-municipality district would draw more scrutiny from the pro-consolidation Department of Education.
The DOE has openly opposed a bill by Rep. Richard Malaby (R-Hancock) that would eliminate the 50-percent requirement. LD 783 has been debated in both the House and Senate but was not resolved before the end of the most recent legislative session. If passed, the bill would take effect July 1, 2014.
The original withdrawal movement did not meet with a substantial vocal opposition, but this time may be different. On Tuesday, Chip Curry of Belfast, voiced his opposition to withdrawal and said he is starting a group in Belfast with a goal of strengthening the current school district.
Curry urged the City Council not to use public funds for what he saw as a political campaign.
Belfast voters approved spending up to $50,000 to petition the state for withdrawal the first time around. The expenses included legal fees and the purchase of 300 signs urging voters to weigh in at the June 11 referendum.
“Get out the vote campaigns are inherently political,” Curry told the Council. As an alternative, he said, the city should look to the state’s clean election laws, which give equal financing to supporters and opponents.
Should the referendum pass, he asked the Council to commission an independent analysis of the costs and benefits, taking into consideration the effect on the quality of education, taxes, and local economic development among other factors.
“At the very least we need a set of agreed upon facts to rely upon,” he said.
Curry didn’t specifically mention of the findings of the Belfast RSU 20 withdrawal committee, which included some outspoken withdrawal supporters. The group found that leaving the district would save money. RSU 20 administrators reviewed the committee’s figures and found only minor discrepancies.
On the pro-withdrawal side, some of the faces may be familiar. City Councilor and former RSU 20 withdrawal committee member Eric Sanders was among four Belfast residents who circulated the latest petition.
Steve Hutchings, a Belfast Area High School teacher who was one of the original petitioners and a passionate speakers in support of withdrawal, said in an e-mail recently that he will not be campaigning this time.
"Having spent a year and a half of my life on the first attempt I just don't have the energy for this one," said the Belfast Area High School teacher.
Hutchings he started the withdrawal effort out of a belief that breaking from the RSU was necessary to improve the education of the students of the former SAD 34 and be more responsible toward taxpayers.
"The legislature failed the public and set impossible roadblocks that we almost overcame," he said. "The effort was needed and was a huge accomplishment ... I applaud those that are continuing the effort and now it is in the hands of the parents where quite frankly it should always be."
Ethan Andrews can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org