BELFAST - Recent talk of consolidation in Regional School Unit 20 has left some parents and residents waiting anxiously for the other shoe to drop. This week, Superintendent Brian Carpenter released a raft of seven proposals that would, in various ways, seek to keep the district afloat in the long term.
The good news is that the proposals came a month ahead of schedule. The bad news, according to Carpenter, who drafted the 50-page, slideshow-style document, is that a major overhaul, including school closures and reorganizing students within the remaining buildings, is the only realistic hope for the district and it needs to happen soon.
“You’ve gotta do something if you’re looking at a 10-percent tax increase,” he said, Friday, referring to the average increase in the mill rate passed onto towns under the current budget.
That budget was rejected twice by voters before it was finally approved in mid-September. Carpenter said there’s nothing else that can be cut to retain the current organization of schools, students and teachers.
The reason is a gradual drop in enrollment paired with the loss of state funding that comes with fewer students a shift in the funding burden from the state to the local level. The eight-town district has attempted to avoid school closures and layoffs in past years by making piecemeal cuts, but has repeatedly faced seven-digit shortfalls and the looming proposition of staff cuts and school closures.
“If I take the budget I have right now, its programs and personnel that have to go if you’re not going to consolidate,” he said.
Critics of the RSU are quick to point out that the consolidation of Belfast-based SAD 34 and Searsport-based SAD 56 in 2009 never went beyond the administrative level. RSU 20 has retained both of the preconsolidation high schools and middle schools, and until this year when Stockton Springs Elementary School was leased to Broadreach Family & Community Services for use as a Pre-K center, all of its original elementary schools.
Frankfort, the other exception, left the district last year. The town’s elementary school was pegged for closure in 2010 and 2011. The loss of roughly 90 Frankfort students partially accounts for the precipitous 11-percent drop in enrollment this year, as compared with losses in the low single digit percentages in previous years.
Lower enrollment means less money in state subsidies. For towns that have remained in the district, declining enrollment often translates to a higher cost of education per student because the facilities costs to keep a school open are the same whether the building is full or empty.
According to figures provided by the district, per student costs range from $4,713 at Ames Elementary School in Searsmont to $17,559 at Searsport District High School. The disparity is somewhat reflected in how full the schools are. Ames is currently at 83-percent of capacity. Searsport District High School’s figures — combined with those for the middle school — show the complex at 45-percent of capacity.
The seven proposals vary widely in the small details, but the overarching theme involves closing some of the smaller elementary schools and in many cases putting all middle school students under one roof, and all high school students under another. On the educational side, Carpenter includes the possibility of focus schools including Waldo County Technical Center in the mix.
The full document, which includes districts statistics and the anticipated pros and cons of each plan can be viewed here.
Following are the broad strokes of the plans:
• Grade level breaks are somewhat up for grabs in the proposals. Two of the plans eliminate middle school as a distinct entity, either by creating a grade 3-6 or 4-6 elementary school and putting grades and 7-12 together in one school or at least under one roof.
• All of the proposals include the closure of three or four schools. Kermit Nickerson Elementary School in Swanville would be closed in all of the proposals. The school has the highest per student cost ($11,965) of any elementary school in the district. If the school were closed, the 71 students would be transferred to either East Belfast Elementary or Searsport Elementary School.
• Edna Drinkwater Elementary in Northport and Gladys Weymouth Elementary in Morrill would be closed in all but one of the proposals. The 88 Drinkwater students in grades K-5 would go to Belfast, attending Captain Albert Stevens Elementary in lower grades and later Troy Howard Middle School under several of the plans. Weymouth’s 103 Pre-K through 1st grade students would be transferred to Ames Elementary School in Searsmont, which currently serves 141 students in grades 2-5.
• Under five of the seven plans, East Belfast Elementary School would be closed and the school’s 115 students in grades K-5 would be moved to Searsport Elementary School.
• Two of the plans propose a single regional middle school and regional high school. Significantly, this would unify the schedules of the former school districts. The upper grade consolidation approach would also require some rebranding of the school and sports teams, which Carpenter listed under disadvantages of those plans.
• Several of Carpenter plans resemble a 2011 proposal by former superintendent Bruce Mailloux. Where Mailloux proposed using the Searsport Middle School/High School complex for all RSU 20 middle school students and Belfast Area High School for the district’s high school students, Carpenter has proposed that both regional schools be located in Belfast — in Troy Howard Middle School and Belfast Area High School, respectively.
Carpenter said Friday that he is holding off on computing the actual costs and savings for any of the plans until the board winnows the number of proposals to three or four.
As for what the public should expect. Carpenter said the board is unlikely to take up the plans before its regular Dec. 10 meeting. The document released this week indicates that there will be community and regional forums on the plans in the future.
Ethan Andrews can be reached at email@example.com