NORTHPORT, Maine — Residents of Northport’s new single-town school district have agreed to come up with about $3 million for a major school renovation project that is expected to be completed by the beginning of the 2016 school year.
Superintendent Judy Lucarelli has a good idea why voters in the town were overwhelmingly supportive of the school renovation project, despite Maine’s current general educational climate of belt tightening. When Northport residents voted to withdraw from Regional School Unit 20 last November, the move saved the town’s property taxpayers a lot of money, she said. Even with some significant startup costs this year for the new district, residents will spend $700,000 less for schools than they did last year. Overall, Northport’s school budget decreased from $3.36 million in the 2014-2015 fiscal year to $2.93 million this year.
“In my experience, in every [School Administrative District] and RSU in the state, there’s always one town that has lots of property value and fewer kids,” Lucarelli said. “In this district, that was Northport.”
When the town’s voters decided last November to leave the district, it meant they would have more local control and more money. Previously, RSU 20 included Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Swanville. After the vote, the shrunken RSU only includes Searsport and Swanville. The communities of Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Searsmont and Swanville have joined together to make up another new district: RSU 71.
The Northport Municipal School Unit has just one school, the K-5 Edna Drinkwater School, where eight full-time teachers and several part-time teachers will welcome the approximately 85-person student body through the doors Monday, Aug. 31, the first day of school.
“The staff is full-steam ahead,” Lucarelli said Tuesday. “It’s a very busy and a very exciting time.”
Northport’s high school students now have school choice, meaning they can go to any approved high school, with most choosing to attend Belfast Area High School, Lucarelli said. But the town is anticipating a change for middle school students. This year, most of the town’s sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students will attend the Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast, as they have done for many years. Next year they will stay in Northport, because voters gave the green light to raising funds for a major addition at the Edna Drinkwater School that would allow it to contain three more grades.
The project needs to be locally funded, Lucarelli said, because one of the conditions of school withdrawal is that a withdrawing community can’t get state funding for construction for five years.
“We chose to withdraw, and that’s one of the consequences,” she said. “We can’t wait five years for a middle school.”
On Saturday, Aug. 15, Northport residents voted 149 to 20 to borrow no more than $2.7 million to finance improvements and renovations to the school and voted 138 to 30 to borrow not more than $300,000 to finance the purchase and installation of a new pellet boiler for the school. Although the election turnout was quite low — Northport has 1,226 registered voters, according to a town clerk — Lucarelli said she was heartened by the large margin of voters in favor of the $3 million project.
The addition will mean a roughly 50 percent increase to the size of the school and will include three new classrooms, a music room, a gym expansion and enough office space that the portable classrooms that have been providing office space can be removed. The renovations also will include some energy efficiency improvements, such as replacing part of the roof and adding the pellet boiler with a backup gas heating system.
“It’s very, very exciting,” Lucarelli said of the project.