Politics

December 18, 2013

Voters give Freeport impetus to leave school district

55 percent of Freeport voters said ‘yes’ to exploring breaking away.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A Freeport committee will begin the arduous process of withdrawing from Regional School Unit 5, supported by a clear majority of voters who went to the polls on Tuesday.

“I thought it would be a lot closer,” said Charly Haversat, a founder of Moving Freeport Forward, the residents group that petitioned for the withdrawal. “It says that people in Freeport know the RSU model is not working and they’re looking to see what’s next and to find alternatives.”

The 953-768 vote – about 55 percent to 45 percent – does not guarantee that the largest town in RSU 5 will leave the district, which also includes Pownal and Durham.

First, a committee of Freeport residents and officials must go through an intricate, 22-step process that will bring the district to the brink of breakup. To finalize the split, Freeport residents must go back to the polls to approve the detailed plan drawn up by a withdrawal committee.

The four-member committee will negotiate an agreement that will need approval from the state, and then from Freeport voters.

The committee will have to make a plan for educating students from Pownal and Durham who are in the consolidated district, and make longer-term plans for how students in those towns will be educated in the future.

Haversat said her group will soon decide who among them will serve on the withdrawal committee, which will also include a member of the Freeport Town Council, a Freeport resident and a Freeport representative from the RSU 5 Board of Directors.

“Our hope is that Durham and Pownal will realize that there will be a place for their kids to land,” Haversat said. “(Withdrawal negotiations) will be done in a thoughtful manner. There will obviously be some tough decisions to make, but we’ll do it in a way that’s best for the education of our kids.”

Proponents of withdrawal say that financial savings promised in the consolidation have never materialized, and that penalties threatened by the state for districts that refused to go along with consolidation were never levied.

Friction between the towns is most evident during budget season. Except for one instance when most Durham voters approved the school budget, a majority of voters in Durham and Pownal have voted against the school budget since the school district was formed in 2009.

Reached Tuesday night, Michelle Ritcheson, who represents Durham on the RSU 5 board, said she is disappointed that Freeport’s withdrawal will go forward.

“Its not the end of anything, it’s the start of a whole lot of work for all of us,” Ritcheson said.

Part of the conflict comes from the way the state determines each town’s contribution for education, in the form of property taxes.

Property in Pownal and Durham is rising in value, increasing residents’ burden to support the schools and pushing down the amount the state contributes. As school budgets have crept up, so have the property taxes that residents in Pownal and Durham must pay.

A tipping point came in June, when a $17 million renovation plan for Freeport High School failed at the polls, in part because voters in Durham and Pownal were reluctant to spend more on education in a year when property taxes were already expected to rise in the two towns.

The small group of Freeport residents then organized the withdrawal petition, saying an independent school system will bring a brighter future for students.

Although a revised, $14.6 million renovation bond passed narrowly in November, work at the high school will not begin until the question of withdrawal is settled.

At a hearing this month, hundreds of residents listened and asked questions about the process ahead, and representatives from Moving Freeport Forward said withdrawal would bring back local control, give the schools more educational flexibility and improve course offerings for students.

The town commissioned a study of how much it would cost Freeport taxpayers to withdraw. At first, the economist hired by the town said the cost could be as high as $4 million. The Town Council, displeased with his methodology, requested a revision. The second time, the estimated cost to taxpayers shrank to $1.6 million.

Advocates for withdrawal said that figure could be further reduced through careful financial planning and accounting, but many variables would have to be worked out before a final cost could be tallied accurately.

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

mbyrne@pressherald.com

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