The Regional School Unit 5 Board of Directors will decide Wednesday whether to approve an agreement that would allow Freeport to withdraw from the district.
The board’s approval would send the agreement to the Maine Department of Education for consideration. If the plan is approved by the state, Freeport voters will then decide, likely in November, whether to withdraw from RSU 5, which was formed in 2009 and also includes Durham and Pownal.
RSU 5 is the latest of Maine’s consolidated school districts to go through withdrawal talks. Most districts that have pursued breakups were formed after a 2008 state law required consolidations in an effort to cut administrative costs. The law later allowed communities to opt out of the sometimes unpopular regional districts.
Freeport would become a standalone district as of July 2015. The agreement would limit the ability of Pownal and Durham to send future students to the district’s current high school in Freeport, but would guarantee access to Brunswick High School.
Durham and Pownal students would be allowed to attend Freeport schools in the 2015-16 school year under a tuition contract, and those students would be allowed to stay through high school graduation. After the 2015-16 school year, Freeport High School, the only high school in the district, would continue to take new Durham and Pownal students up to the school’s capacity of 500 students.
Last year, 515 students attended Freeport High, with 326 from Freeport, 131 from Durham and 58 from Pownal.
The proposal calls for Durham and Pownal students to be guaranteed enrollment at Brunswick High School. The Brunswick School Board is scheduled to vote on that plan next month and is anticipated to accept the students, said RSU 5 Chair Nelson Larkins.
Pownal, which doesn’t have its own middle school, would be allowed to send students to Freeport Middle School under the agreement.
The proposal was put together by the Freeport Withdrawal Committee, which was formed after a majority of Freeport voters in December supported looking at leaving the district. The four-member committee of Freeport residents has been working with the RSU 5 Withdrawal Working Group, which consists of members of the school board from Durham and Pownal.
The RSU 5 board has six members from Freeport, including Larkins, who also serves as a non-voting advisory member to the working group. Three board members represent Durham and two represent Pownal.
Larkins said that the working group has not endorsed the withdrawal committee’s proposal, and that a major sticking point is the cost of tuition for Durham and Pownal to send students Freeport High School. The chair of the working group, a school board member from Durham, could not be reached Tuesday.
A letter from the withdrawal committee to the school board said that the committee felt the tuition rate “would be better negotiated at arms length after withdrawal,” but conceded to the Durham and Pownal group’s request to include it in the withdrawal agreement.
The committee proposed a tuition contract that would charge Durham and Pownal, for the first 60 students, a rate halfway between the state’s calculated cost per student in Freeport, which is about $10,400, and the average cost per student in the state, about $9,200, said Rich DeGrandpre, a Freeport Town Councilor and member of the withdrawal committee. Additional students beyond the first 60 would cost the Freeport rate.
The letter said the terms of the contract represent “a generous compromise” between the two groups and the agreement is the committee’s “best and final offer.”
Larkins said there are time constraints for getting an agreement to the Department of Education to hold a town-wide vote in November, but the state hasn’t set a “drop dead date,” he said.
DeGrandpre said it’s important to the group to have the vote in November rather than leave the district in limbo for another year.
Freeport is the largest town in RSU 5, which has a total of six schools, around 1,900 students and a budget of $27.3 million.
Freeport residents started talking about withdrawing from the district after a $17 million renovation plan for Freeport High School failed at the polls last year, at least partially because Durham and Pownal residents didn’t want to spend the money, especially because their property taxes were expected to go up.
Voters approved a revised $14.6 million high school renovation last November, but work won’t begin until the withdraw issue is settled. If Freeport withdraws from the district, that money will no longer be available.