June 24, 2013

School-cost conflict could split RSU 5

Differing priorities strain the union of Regional School Unit 5's towns of Freeport, Durham and Pownal.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

FREEPORT - The honeymoon is over for Regional School Unit 5, and some residents are talking about a divorce.

A contentious campaign earlier this month that ended in the close vote against a costly school improvement project at Freeport High School has driven a wedge in the union of Freeport, Durham and Pownal's school systems. The election has some asking for a breakup.

"Now is an important time to look at this question (because) we're contemplating looking at having a $17 million baby within this marriage," said school board member Peter Murray of Freeport, referring to the failed construction project, which would have added classrooms and new athletic facilities to Freeport High School.

"Waiting and seeing what happens (with the expansion) and then getting out later adds risk," Murray said.

Murray is among a number of residents who are calling for a re-evaluation of the cost- and resource-sharing agreement following the rejection of the high school bond, which was defeated by 174 votes at the polls, 2,202 to 2,028. Most Freeport voters supported the project, but it was voted down by a larger margin in Pownal and Durham.

The strained relationship is not limited to Freeport and its neighbors. Communities in school districts around the state have talked about splitting up and some, such as Saco and Dayton, are actively pursuing formal votes to withdraw.

The tensions are the result of a 2007 state law intended to cut administrative costs by merging the state's 290 school districts into 80 regional units. Many communities combined school operations to avoid threatened penalties, although the penalties were later repealed and communities unhappy with the costs and loss of local control began looking at withdrawing.

Members of RSU 5 have looked into withdrawing before, but the Freeport High School vote brought those tensions to the surface.

The $16.9 million project would have allowed enrollment to grow from 540 now to a projected 688 a decade from now without overcrowding.

The RSU 5 Board of Directors has authorized a $5,000 poll to probe voters' reasoning behind the numerous "no" ballots, and whether splitting the project into a menu of upgrades would provide a greater chance of passage. The survey is expected to be conducted this summer.

And in the coming weeks, the Freeport Town Council will hold a special meeting to discuss the ramifications of dissolving the partnership and operating a one-community district.

But unraveling the reasons for town divisions and the close vote is neither easy nor clear-cut. In Durham and Pownal, whose voters were against the school bond, concerns about tax rates mix with old resentments about how the RSU was formed in the first place.

"It was not a vote against education," said Durham resident Laurie Poissonnier, at a meeting of the school Board of Directors after the election. "It was a vote on the increase in their taxes."

Another Durham resident, Kevin Nadeau, said he studied the possibility of Durham splitting from the union when the town took up the issue last year. Residents ended up voting with their wallets, he said, after an analysis showed some financial advantage to remaining in the group.

"Paying tuition will be more expensive in the long run" if Durham splits away, Nadeau said. "I would also hope people think about the long-term educational benefits by being a voting member of a school district versus being out on our own."

Yet had the recent bond passed, Nadeau said, he and other Durham residents could have faced a nearly 20 percent tax increase, 7 percent of which would have paid for the school's new debt.

"I'd challenge someone to find a town in Maine that has ever voted yes on a 20 percent tax increase," he said.

Incomes among the three towns do not differ as much as some residents believe, Nadeau said. But the perceived inequality among the communities runs deep, and old feelings of resentment about the formation of the regionalized unit still linger, he said.

"It's a different society, pretty much," said Paul Randall, who raises cattle on his 86-acre farm on Hallowell Road in Pownal.

Randall is fearful he will be "taxed out" of town, and was skeptical of whether the $17 million proposal was the wisest way to spend money.

Eager to shoot down the new tax costs, Randall hand-painted a few dozen "vote no" signs with his girlfriend. Before he knew it, she was scrawling letters on the outhouse Randall uses at his fishing camp.

The simple message -- "Vote yes and you won't have a pot to ... in" -- turned the wooden shack into a powerful symbol of what voters felt was at stake. For added effect, he strapped the tiny structure to his truck bed and parked it near the polling place on Election Day for all to see.

"I'm 62," Randall said. "I work like I'm 25. I'm not making any money here. What's next after the school addition?"

Freeport resident Marianne Doyle, who was the most blunt in her call to examine dissolving the district at a Freeport Town Council meeting last week, highlighted the different priorities of the towns as a reason to explore departure.

Doyle said that after the regionalizing effort began in 2007, residents were led to believe the high school could accommodate the added students, that the district would receive preference for future state funds, and that the towns would be financially penalized if they opted against joining together.

"All of these have been proven to be untrue," Doyle said.

"(Pownal and Durham) have different histories and expectations around state support for school funding than we do in Freeport. As a result they are consistently paying more than they want, and we are getting less." 

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

mbyrne@pressherald.com

 

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