BELGRADE — A petition-driven ballot measure calling for the town to start the process of withdrawing from Regional School Unit 18 drew impassioned reactions Tuesday as residents and officials debated the wording and implications of the local vote.

More than four dozen people attended the public hearing that also covered two other local questions set to appear on the November ballot in Belgrade.

Much of the debate on the withdrawal question centered on whether the $15,000 amount to be expended for a study would be enough to cover it.

Town Manager Dennis Keschl asked the Board of Selectpersons whether the amount should be increased since he had learned from the state Department of Education that more money might be needed.

David Holinger, who helped with the petition drive, related the experience of Northport, which set aside $40,000 for the withdrawal and spent $25,000 on that, including some on legal costs.

Afterward, Selectman Ernest Rice suggested putting in $15,000, up to $25,000. However, Dana Doran, who served on an informal review committee looking at withdrawal options, asked if changing the amount would invalidate the petition.

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.

Becky Seel, who is one of the town’s two representatives to the RSU 18 board as well as an attorney, said, “I’m not convinced you have the discretion to change (the money amount) up tonight.”

Gary Mahler, chairman of the select board, said, “If more money is required it goes back to the voter.”

Ultimately, the board took no action to alter the question.

The town has been concerned about the costs of education. Resident Jack Sutton, said he was worried that setting up a withdrawal committee would be “a step forward in a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Howard Holinger, who also was on the study committee, lamented the way the state has worded the withdrawal process, saying it “indicates the intent is to withdrawal.”

“The vote to withdraw is not what would be happening now; it’s to start the process,” Holinger said. “I wish that I could change the wording, but I can’t.”

He also said, “Belgrade doesn’t have any voice to speak of in RSU 18. We can always be out-voted on the school board.”

Melanie Jewel, a former select board member, asked about the committee’s goal.

She said the petitioners sought signatures by telling people, “Do you know that they’re going to shut down Belgrade Central School and bus your kids to Sidney?”

Several administrators from RSU 18, including the superintendent, attended Tuesday night’s hearing.

Superintendent Carl Gartley said it was his personal opinion that withdrawing from the district and then tuitioning students back to RSU 18 or some other district would cost the town more.

Selectmen voted unanimously to postpone action on the other two questions.

The first would have changed the “Town of Belgrade Solid Waste and Recycling Ordinance” to reflect what selectmen said was current practice at the transfer station, which accepts recycling from neighboring Mount Vernon and Rome residents and some household trash at a $2 a bag rate, with the bags purchased from the Belgrade Town Office.

Jewell said the practice began in order “to be neighborly” and directly benefited the town, which receives money for recyclables.

Resident Regina Coppens said she was concerned that the ordinance change would bring more traffic on the Dunn and West roads.

“Are we going to have the dump open more days?” she asked. “What is the volume of this?”

The third question asks whether residents would permit the Belgrade Historical Society to undertake “certain restoration and renovation projects” at the Old Town House on Cemetery Road.

Bruce Trumper, a former member and one-time secretary of the society, objected, saying the definitions “of restoration and renovation are mutually exclusive.” He also said the condition of the Old Town House “could be further maligned by insensitive work.”

After some discussion about why the building was not accepted for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and leadership changes in the society, Mary Vogel, a co-president of the society, said, “At this point in time, I’m not comfortable moving this article forward.”

Selectmen then postponed the request.

In other business, Cheryl Mitchell was unanimously appointed as the new town clerk. Mitchell, who recently moved to Oakland, spent the last year and a half as deputy clerk and deputy treasurer in the Town of Carmel.

Keschl also noted that the Town Office’s electronic sign would soon be moved closer to Route 27 to make it more visible to passing motorists.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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