July 10, 2013

Freeport eyes withdrawing from school district

The town seems ready to hire a consultant to work on a hypothetical budget as it considers secession.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

FREEPORT – The town appears poised to hire an independent consultant to analyze the implications of Freeport withdrawing from the regional school district it shares with Pownal and Durham.

Town councilors Tuesday said they will likely have the educational consultant work with town staff on a hypothetical school budget for a Freeport-only school system. The consultant would estimate the potential cost to taxpayers and, most important, how curriculum and educational offerings could be affected, councilors said.

"You had me at data," said at-large Councilor Melanie Sachs at Tuesday's workshop meeting. "Of course I'm for a study, for good data, because it will strengthen our positions going forward."

The cost of hiring the consultant would be below $10,000 – most likely closer to $5,000 – and would likely be a former or current school superintendent, councilors said. The town would seek quotes from candidates for the job, which would likely last two or three weeks this summer. Councilors will formally vote next Tuesday on whether to request quotes.

Hiring an outside consultant to assemble the data would help ensure the process is unbiased, town officials said.

"We want to be sure we're completely neutral," said Town Manager Peter Joseph.

Although separation has been a hot topic among Freeport residents recently, the formal process to withdraw can only begin if 416 registered voters sign a petition requesting it, and no petition yet exists.

Withdrawing from a regional school district involves a multi-step process and the state Department of Education would have to give final approval. The process would likely take at least a year.

The push to explore having Freeport split from Regional School Unit 5 comes after a proposed renovation and expansion of Freeport High School, costing almost $17 million, failed at the polls in June.

Proponents said it was needed to accommodate expanding enrollment, update facilities to modern standards and expand athletic facilities.

Most Pownal and Durham residents opposed the plan, which would have raised property taxes in an already difficult budget year. But most Freeport residents supported the project, leading many to call for re-examining whether the town should remain in the regional district.

A 2007 state law mandated that most towns join regional school districts or face financial penalties that were never fully enforced.

Durham had examined withdrawing from the district, but voters decided against it after learning that separation would cost the town about $1 million more in school costs annually.

 

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

mbyrne@pressherald.com

 

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