BELGRADE — A ballot measure asking whether voters want to initiate the process of withdrawing from Regional School Unit 18 proved as divisive as ever Monday night during a public discussion of the issue.

More than 60 people went to the Belgrade Community Center for All Seasons to hear from those who collected signatures to get it on the ballot and their supporters, as well as those opposed to the withdrawal.

People from both sides accused the other of putting out misinformation.

“Right now the difference between truth and fiction seems to be blurred,” said Dana Doran, who opposes the withdrawal effort. “If it passes, it begins a state statutory process that could lead to withdrawal.”

Ernie Rice, a member of a group that originated the petition, said the phrasing of the measure on the ballot — prescribed by state law — is somewhat misleading.

“You’re not voting to withdraw from RSU 18; you are voting to have a clear and concise process gone through,” Rice said. “At the end, it will come out with real numbers that can be decided on by the voters.”

He said the group formed in response to a meeting where the district’s superintendent talked about consolidating Belgrade and Sidney schools and a reduction of cafeteria and maintenance workers. Signs posted around the town say, “Vote Yes on 1. Save Belgrade Central School.”

Rice, one of five selectmen in the town, specified he was speaking as a resident only.

Some property owners have objected to rising school costs.

Each of the five towns in the district supports it according to a formula that is based 75 percent on land value and 25 percent on student population.

Resident Kathy Brown said she was concerned that Belgrade was paying $6 million a year toward the school budget yet sends only 16 percent of the students.

“This isn’t right for Belgrade to pay more than any other town when we have 16 percent of the students,” she said.

Another resident, Sarah Languet, countered by saying that the state mandates that Belgrade raise $5 million toward educating students in kindergarten through grade 12. She offered estimates indicating that the cost of remaining in the district would be about $5.8 million, while the cost to leave might be $5.2 million.

“You guys realize that’s only 10 percent?” she asked the others at the meeting. “For a 10 percent savings, we put in a withdrawal petition? Usually 10 percent is a contingency for any construction job. It’s just a wash, in my mind.”

“The actual project was $670,797,” Rice responded. “This is the report that came to the select board, and basically I didn’t agree with those numbers.”

A former select board member, Penny Morrell, collected all the 170-plus signatures that put the measure on the Nov. 7 ballot. She said she wanted to find the cost of educating Belgrade students.

“I’m not for withdrawing,” she said at one point. “I just want the information.”

Later she said, “What we’re looking at is paying by student. Then everybody pays for the students in their town, and not the students in everybody else’s town.”

Another member of the petition group, Howard Holinger, said he too wants concrete numbers on operating Belgrade Central School.

“I would like tax dollars to stay locally and even fund (Belgrade Central School) higher than it is right now,” he said. “Now the money is going into the RSU 18 pool and divided up according to how RSU 18 wishes.”

He also said that he spent 44 years in public education and understands the benefits of being in a larger school system.

“I resent the implication that anything I have advocated would be to slash education in Belgrade,” he added.

Nancy Mitchell, of Sidney, a teacher in the district and president of the RSU 18 Education Association, said the town is bound by teaching contracts in place until 2019 even if it goes forward with the withdrawal. She also noted that a number of specialty teachers and staff members are supplied by the district.

A half dozen or so people at the session wore the same lime green T-shirt indicating they were part of the staff of Belgrade Central School.

Eric Brooks, who teaches at Belgrade Central School, said he and others “came to Belgrade Central School because of everything the RSU can offer,” including continuing education. He added, “I cannot imagine being in another building, but I don’t know that the town of Belgrade can offer the same things that the RSU can do.”

He suggested those who want to support the school donate time and volunteer there.

“There are ways you can make your school better that won’t cost you money,” Brooks said.

Becky Seel, one of Belgrade’s representatives on the RSU 18 Board of Directors, said school consolidation had been one of the options suggested by a Facilities Committee charged with investigating problems with district buildings. Another option had been to combine all the elementary schools at one location, she said.

The school board later voted to put a $13.9 million facilities renovation and improvement bond issue on the ballot for Nov. 7, with almost $800,000 designated for work at Belgrade Central School.

“There was never any board vote on closing Belgrade Central School,” she said.

She said a benefit of being within a larger district is sharing extraordinary costs that can vary year to year, and that the town still would have to pay to educate students in grades 6 through 12, since the town does not have a middle school or a high school.

Her husband, George Seel, said, “We voters are being asked to vote on an article that will initiate process under state statue that will initiate withdraw. We are not being asked for a cost-benefit analysis. If that had been the intent, then the article should have been worded that way.”

Superintendent Carl Gartley responded to questions during the meeting, and said, “I am a huge advocate of local control. I definitely want to keep a school in each town. However, this is a decision for Belgrade. I personally hope (the withdraw move) does not go forward.”

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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