Searsmont and Northport support withdrawal bid; budget passes on third try

Voters approve RSU 20 budget, withdrawal in two towns

Wed, 09/18/2013 - 1:30am

    Voters from the eight towns of Regional School Unit 20 collectively approved the school district’s 2013-14 budget on Tuesday by a vote of 914-749. The validation ended a stalemate between district officials and voters who had previously rejected two drafts of the budget at the polls.

    In a separate ballot question, Searsmont and Northport voters each approved measures to pursue withdrawal from the school district. Belfast and Belmont voters approved withdrawal questions in August, and Morrill residents are expected to vote on the same issue in November.

    RSU 20 includes Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Swanville. 

    The $33.4 million bottom line approved by voters Tuesday includes cuts to staff and other budget lines and is expected to result in an average increase in the municipal tax levy of just over 10 percent.

    Earlier drafts of the budget carried increases of between 12 and 17 percent.

    Speaking about the latest figures at a recent public budget meeting, Superintendent Brian Carpenter told voters that the board did its best to deal with what he called an “unfunded mandate” of over a half-million dollars.

    The current budget would raise the district’s bottom line by $21,000, or less than one-tenth of a percent, from last year. To get there, however, he said the board had to cut expenses by $578,000 to make up for a loss of state aid. The shortfall came partly as a result of Frankfort leaving the district. RSU 20 also saw declining enrollment and an increase in the cost of special education services.

    District administrators initially pitched deep cuts in an attempt to keep taxes low, but these seemed to please no one.

    The proposed elimination of staff positions, particularly art teachers, secretaries and library ed techs, met with strong opposition from some residents who saw threats to the longterm health of the district. Others felt the cuts didn’t go far enough. A double-digit tax increase, they argued, would be disastrous for taxpayers, particularly in smaller towns where the school budget accounts for a larger share of property tax bills. 

    Voters rejected two consecutive drafts of the budget in June and July, leaving school officials guessing whether to go up or down.

    Ultimately, the school board restored several key staff positions and asked residents to accept a compromise and move forward. On Tuesday, a majority of residents approved the budget.

    Sept. 17 referendum results, by town:

    Belfast - Yes 373, No 230

    Belmont - Yes 49, No 34

    Morrill - Yes 43, No 63

    Northport - Yes 128 - No 93 — RSU 20 Withdrawal - Yes 153, No 67

    Searsmont - Yes 106, No 86 — RSU 20 Withdrawal - Yes 149, No 40

    Searsport: - Yes 71, No 83

    Stockton Springs - Yes 104, No 96

    Swanville - Yes 40, No 64

    Total - Yes 914, No 749

    A new bid for withdrawal

    On Tuesday, voters in Northport and Searsmont additionally approved measures to seek withdrawal from RSU 20.

    A previous withdrawal bid by six towns that formed the pre-consolidation SAD 34 came before voters in June. It was approved by a supermajority in all six towns, however the results were thrown out because voter turnout failed to meet the statutory threshold of 50-percent of the last gubernatorial election.

    Belfast and Belmont each renewed bids for withdrawal in August by votes of 310-13 and 36-15 respectively.

    Morrill voters are scheduled to vote on withdrawal in November, according to a town official.

    Supporters of withdrawal from the eight-town school district have cited local control and cost savings as justification for leaving. In the previous withdrawal bid by six towns — Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont and Swanville — supporters had hoped to leave the district simultaneously and re-form a new school distirct modeled on the old SAD 34.

    Advocates have not committed to a particular plan this time, and among some, there has been talk of Belfast trying to form its own school district.

    The recent “yes” votes on withdrawal restart a process in which each municipality must form committees to draft a withdrawal plan. Under current state law, each town must withdraw independently. As in the last bid, all withdrawal plans must be approved by the RSU 20 board of directors and the Maine Department of Education.

    If these steps are successful, the plans are subject to a final validation referendum by voters in each town.

    Ethan Andrews can be reached at