October 28, 2013

Freeport voters to consider withdrawal from RSU 5

A referendum as early as December could kick-start a withdrawal committee process.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Freeport residents frustrated by the regional school relationship with Durham and Pownal have successfully gathered nearly 500 signatures, well more than the number required to explore withdrawal by Freeport schools, according to a local woman who organized the petition drive.

The signatures trigger a referendum vote that, if successful, will kick-start the withdrawal process, said Charly Haversat, a withdrawal proponent who helped gather the signatures.

She said the signatures were verified Thursday by Freeport Town Clerk Tracy Stevens. Stevens and other town officials could not be reached for comment Sunday night.

But according to agenda documents, the Freeport Town Council on Tuesday is expected to discuss when to hold the special referendum, which is tentatively slated for Dec. 17. Voters would be asked whether to create a withdrawal committee.

Questions remain, however, about the potential increase in property taxes to Freeport residents required to support a stand-alone district, and what impact fewer students would have on the availability of a diverse range of courses.

While a previous estimate pegged the required new revenue at $4 million annually, that figure has since been revised to $1.6 million, and councilors are expected to parse the new figures at the meeting.

If the withdrawal referendum in December is successful, it would create a formal committee to engage in a legally defined 22-step process to develop a withdrawal agreement.

Similar to a family’s divorce negotiation, the withdrawal agreement spells out exactly how the school district would divide assets and plan how to educate the district’s current students. The withdrawal agreement would be subject to a second referendum vote to finalize the separation.

Haversat and fellow withdrawal proponent Jerry Antl said Freeport went along with the regional school district plan several years ago in the belief that the state would impose harsh fines on districts that refused to join forces with neighboring schools. They also charge that during the planning of Regional School Unit 5, the classroom capacity of Freeport High School was misjudged.

Statewide penalties were never enforced, Haversat and Antl said, and the Legislature never appropriated money to study if the consolidation effort saved districts money.

“The RSU model was predicated on savings that just never happened,” Haversat said.

Tension about maintaining local control of the Freeport schools peaked in June, when a $17 million bond to renovate the overcrowded and outdated Freeport High School failed by a thin margin. A majority of Freeport voters approved the project, but the referendum’s ultimate failure was driven largely by voters in Pownal and Durham concerned about property tax increases to pay for the project.

Now that undergoing the withdrawal process seems increasingly likely, the future of the renovation project becomes more complex.

After the initial $17 million version failed at the ballot box, planners trimmed some costs, tweaked the project’s scope, and separated out some of the spending on athletic facilities. The resulting bond referendum that will go before Freeport, Pownal and Durham voters on Nov. 5 proposes spending $14.6 million on the renovation. The second question on the athletic facilities asks that if the $14.6 million renovation passes, whether voters would approve the further upgrade of installing synthetic turf fields instead of simply updating drainage structures for grass fields.

Foreseeing the conflict between the possible withdrawal and the bond spending, the RSU 5 school board voted earlier this month to require approval from the board for the superintendent to borrow the money, giving the board discretion to delay the spending until after the question of withdrawal has been decided.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:mbyrne@pressherald.com.

 

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