December 4, 2013

Freeport mulls leaving RSU 5 at public hearing

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

FREEPORT — Advocates for Freeport’s withdrawal from its regional school district sharpened their appeal to voters Tuesday at a packed public hearing where many more people in the audience listened patiently than spoke on the complex issue.

More than 200 people packed the Town Council chamber and the town hall’s lobby to hear about the process ahead. A citizens group called Moving Freeport Forward collected enough signatures in October to trigger a preliminary vote Dec. 17.

If Freeport voters decide to start the withdrawal process, a four-member committee will be formed to write a withdrawal plan that must meet tight criteria set by the state. The process can take years, and needs approval from the Maine Department of Education before a second townwide vote can be taken to finalize the plan and split the three-town Regional School Unit 5.

More people who spoke Tuesday favored starting the intricate, 22-step process to form a withdrawal plan, rather than maintaining the educational relationship between Freeport, Durham and Pownal.

John Egan, who represented Moving Freeport Forward, said a standalone district would bring back local control, improve educational offerings and free the town from the tumultuous relationship between the three towns.

He said the state law requiring school district consolidation has created friction among the three towns. He added later: “We think there’s a better way to educate our children.”

Other advocates for withdrawal pointed out that, except for one year when most Durham voters approved the school budget, a majority of voters in Durham and Pownal have voted against the budget since the school district was formed in 2009.

Part of the pressure comes from the way the state determines each town’s contribution, in the form of property taxes, that must be raised for education. Property in Pownal and Durham is rising in value, increasing their burden to support the schools and pushing down the amount the state contributes for schools.

Some speakers expressed less certainty that a better, brighter future lies with the breakup of RSU 5.

A few said they will vote for the withdrawal process as an exploratory measure so the community has time to establish more facts, do research and ponder its options.

“I don’t know what the results are going to be, but I’d like to see what all the information is. That way, I can make a decision,” said Walter Libby. “Voting ‘no’ means you want to be blind about the information.”

Others said that continued collaboration is the only way forward, regardless of the district’s difficult and narrowly approved funding referendums in years past.

“I think the RSU is doing the best job that it can, and I’d like to see us support them,” said John Lowe. “I don’t see all of the dissension that I’ve heard about or read about. It looks like people work pretty well together.”

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com

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