Maine’s hardest education job may belong to Brian Carpenter, the superintendent of a school district with eight communities that don’t want to be together anymore.

In November, Belfast and four other towns will vote whether to leave Regional School Unit 20 to form their own district. Another may leave. Searsport and Stockton Springs could be the only remaining members, but they have kicked off their own efforts to get out.

The divide is largely over the future of two high schools on different sides of the Passagassawakeag River, which splits the coastal district. There are no current plans to close schools, although most agree the 12 existing schools are too many.

The communities merged districts in a shotgun wedding with other towns when Maine’s school consolidation law took effect in 2009.

Before they merged, Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Searsmont, Northport and Swanville had one district. Searsport and Stockton Springs were part of a different district. The larger unit never clicked. A ninth original member, Frankfort, left in 2012.

Carpenter, however, said he believes the current controversy is “a lot of angst about nothing.”


The district is at a stalemate. Many on each side of the river would be fine if schools on the other side closed, but they fiercely defend their own.

Almost everyone says RSU 20’s dozen schools are too many, but the board isn’t advancing plans to close any amid discord. Cuts aren’t popular: The district’s latest budget increased taxes by 7 percent.

Since he took the job in 2012, Carpenter said many have told him about a difference in culture between people in different ends of his district. He thinks it’s a parochial fight, because the difference hasn’t been explained.

“If you can’t explain it to me, there can’t be one,” he said.

Searsport’s 160-student high school has been hailed by state education officials for its adoption of standards-based learning, which uses a 1-4 scale to replace the traditional A-F grading system. However, Searsport’s high school is less cost-effective than Belfast’s, which has rankled many across the river.

The building, which houses high school and middle school students, is just 45 percent full after a period of declining enrollment. Belfast’s high school has 550 pupils and is 69 percent full. That building could accommodate Searsport’s students.


For every high schooler going to Searsport, it costs the district nearly $17,600 annually – more than in-state tuition at the University of Maine in Orono and $7,100 more than Belfast.

“Unfortunately, with the capacity level at Searsport, the current structure can’t continue,” said Eric Sanders, a Belfast city councilor.

There’s no formal plan to close the school, but a threat was enough to anger locals, said Rep. James Gillway, R-Searsport, also the town manager.

“I’m a strong believer in home rule,” Gillway said. “The best decisions are made closest to the taxpayers’ wallets.”

It’s unclear what the post-breakup costs would be for every town. Searsport hasn’t studied it, but Gillway said residents will support schools if costs rise. An analysis prepared in August for Belfast and its partnering towns said budget costs would increase by more than $300,000 over the current district in the new unit’s first year, not including transition costs. But it’s a better financial picture than if Belfast and surrounding towns didn’t split from Searsport and Stockton Springs, it said.

Carpenter said towns aren’t foreseeing all costs, adding that education quality may decline if towns create three programs in areas where there’s now one.

“Push comes to shove,” he said, “there’s going to be a lot of things they won’t be able to do.”

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