A former selectwoman outside the Belgrade polling station Tuesday collected 158 voter signatures on a petition asking the selectmen to begin the process of withdrawing from Regional School Unit 18, the Messalonskee and China district.

Penny Morrell said Wednesday that the number was 12 short of the required 170, so she planned to get a list of absentee voters to collect the remainder.

She’s hoping to present the petition to selectmen Tuesday so the issue can be placed on the November ballot.

The question asks if the town wants to begin the process of withdrawal by spending up to $15,000 for a fact-finder to do a feasibility study.

This is the first step in a 22-step process laid out by the state Department of Education for municipalities that want to leave a regional school unit.

Belgrade, one of five towns in the district, which also includes China, Oakland, Sidney and Rome, has considered the issue previously on an informal basis in response to the town’s rising education costs.


Morrell was a member of the most recent committee, and the conclusions of that committee vary depending on who is speaking.

“Our conclusion was it looked like there would be a significant savings, but we’re amateurs,” Morrell said. “This is an independent study. They would come back to us and say, ‘You’ve got a great system, you couldn’t do it cheaper any other way,’ or say, ‘We could save you 5 cents or millions.”

Rebecca Seel, a longtime school board member from Belgrade who was on the same study committee, disagreed with Morrell’s reading of the results.

“We concluded there didn’t seem to be a signifcant savings to Belgrade from withdrawing; others certainly have a right to their opinion,” Seel said. “Personally, I’m not in favor of withdrawal.”

Chris Rhoda, who was on the study committee and has two children in district schools, said Thursday there are opposing views among committee members about pursing withdrawal.

“I wish it was a simple answer,” he said. “From my perspective, I’m in favor of lowering costs and also in favor of good education, and where you draw that line is the million-dollar question.”


He said the committee learned that state funding formulas for districts are difficult to change. Belgrade and China — which investigated the idea previously — have higher property tax values because of the amount of waterfront property in those towns. Values are somewhat lower in Oakland and Sidney, which have less waterfront.

Rhoda said the committee determined that that supplemental funding formula — a ratio of property taxes and the number of children in schools — might be modified, but he asked, “What town would want their share to go up?”

Rhoda said the issue is complex, as is controlling costs.

“I have two children in the district and pay $4,000 in property taxes, so I can kind of see both sides of the issue,” he said. “Education is expensive. I’m a proponent of education, I think it’s a good thing. My wife and I both have master’s degrees, and we like the educational opportunities our children have in our district.”

The committee reported its conclusions to selectmen in April 2016 and offered three scenarios that Belgrade residents could face.

• Staying with the school district at an estimated $5.8 million cost.


• Withdrawing from the school district and contracting to send all students to RSU 18 at an estimated cost of $5.7 million.

• Withdrawing from the district, operating the Belgrade Central School itself for kindergarten through grade 5, and contracting to send higher grades to RSU 18 schools at an estimated cost of a little more than $5.2 million.

On Thursday, Leilani “Lani” Carlson, who was chairwoman of that committee, said it was the group’s “best estimates based on assumptions, facts and publicly available data at the time.” She added that she wants people to know that the 86 percent of the budget numbers are set by the state and not within the control of the town or district.

Belgrade’s local share is based 75 percent on property value and 25 percent on enrollment.

Carlson said she talked to Morrell on Tuesday but declined to sign the petition.

“I was comfortable with the outcomes from the committee, and I feel that pursing the withdrawl is an inappropriate action,” Carlson said.


In the meantime, a facilities committee of the RSU 18 board has been looking at ways to reduce costs.

Seel said among the five or six options so far is one to merge Belgrade Central School with James Bean Elementary School in Sidney and put the students into an existing school building or into a new one.

“That’s certainly not the only option,” she said. “The process is still ongoing.”

The board plans to have public informational meetings on the various options and to get the public’s reactions, which she anticipated could happen in late summer or early fall.

“We want all the options discussed,” she said, adding. “In addition to financial aspects, there are emotional and historical ones.”

Morrell herself has a strong connection to the school.


“I graduated in 1965 from Belgrade High School,” she said. “There were 21 kids in the graduating class; it was the largest one in history.”

The class of 1908 was the first to graduate from Belgrade High School. High-schoolers from Belgrade began attending Messalonskee High School in Oakland in 1969.

Carl Gartley, assistant superintendent of RSU 18, who is due to assume the superintendent’s role July 1, was the administration’s representative on Belgrade’s informal committee as well.

“I have known that there is a small group in the town who has attempted this petition a couple of times,” he said Thursday. “They’ve been very open with me. They have a town with high lake valuations. They have a real issue and they’re working on it.”

Gartley noted that Belgrade is not the first town in the district to contemplate withdrawal. China explored it as well and ultimately remained in the district.

Gartley said the process will bring out more accurate data about the costs and other details and in the end will result in a decision that is good for the town itself.


“We have a strong school system academically,” he said. “We enjoy the town of Belgrade. We don’t want to lose the town of Belgrade. We’re hoping the process goes smoothly, and in the end we will be a single school district. Our district works hard for students. We would much prefer to keep the district whole. We believe in supporting every single student every day in all of our schools.”

RSU 18 school board members received enrollment projections at a meeting Wednesday indicating the projected enrollment for the district’s elementary schools:

• Belgrade Central School (pre-kindergarten to grade 5), 239;

• China Primary School (pre-kindergarten to grade 5), 245;

• Oakland: Atwood Primary (pre-kindergarten to grade 2), 215, and Williams Elementary (grades 3-5), 207;

• Sidney: James Bean Elementary School (pre-kindergarten to grade 5), 244.

Gartley indicated those totals typically change somewhat with students enrolled over the summer.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: