FREEPORT – Freeport schools would be facing a $4 million budget deficit and fewer academic choices by withdrawing from Regional School Unit 5, according to a study released Sept. 26.

The study, conducted by longtime Maine education consultant Jack Turcotte of Arundel and Portland-based Planning Decisions, was commissioned by the Freeport Town Council in July at the urging of residents frustrated by the defeat of a June 11 referendum that called for a $16.9 million bond to renovate Freeport High School. The measure was overwhelmingly defeated by residents of Pownal and Durham, but passed handily in Freeport.

According to the study, a standalone Freeport school district would require an initial budget of $18.9 million. Freeport contributed $14.9 million to this year’s RSU budget, leaving a shortfall of $4 million, according to the study.

The Freeport Town Council is expected to hear a formal presentation by the consultants at its Oct. 1 meeting and take the recommendations under advisement. The meeting will be held after the Tri-Town Weekly’s deadline.

“If Freeport were to withdraw from RSU 5, enrollment at the high school would drop from approximately 550 to approximately 350,” according to the report. “This would be particularly possible following the graduation of the current Durham and Pownal students currently enrolled at FHS. The result could reduce the high school student population to 350-400 students. This smaller enrollment would subsequently reduce State Aid to Education and subsequently increase the local share of financial support that would be required to maintain current offerings.”

In addition, the report painted a bleak picture for the academic integrity of a Freeport-only school district.

“If Freeport High School were to attempt to maintain the academic opportunities currently available to the students in grades 9-12, the program cost of operating the school would be significantly higher,” wrote the authors of the report. “In fact, due to a lack of students, it is probable that curriculum reduction would be necessary because the students would not be enrolled to effectively offer the current number of specialized classes. Although one often thinks of the benefits of small classes, there is a point where two or three students in a class is not an educationally or a financially sound practice.”

While the report was cautious not to endorse the potential revamped bond tentatively scheduled to go before RSU voters on Nov. 5, it did suggest that expensive renovations would be required despite a reduction in enrollment.

“The most significant conclusion from my facilities’ review is this: Over the years, school personnel have utilized all available space. Even closets are now functioning learning spaces. I see a serious need for program space of all varieties,” according to the report. “The increasing special education program needs, coupled with the past growth of programs for the students, have reached a point of crisis. I believe that whether there are 400 or 700 students, the planned renovation is unavoidable.”

The process of withdrawing from an RSU involves a 22-step procedure per the rules governing the school consolidation system. Guidelines of the Maine Department of Education require that the process begins with a withdrawal petition, signed by 10 percent of Freeport’s residents. The petition authorizes forming a negotiating committee and funding it. The next step is voter approval on a secret ballot. Municipal officials and the school unit then appoint members of a committee to work out details of the separation, and the resulting agreement goes to the commissioner of education and then to voters at a second referendum, according to the Maine Department of Education.

Last November, Durham voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal asking if they favored to begin the process of withdrawing from the RSU.

The Freeport presentation will allow councilors to dig a little deeper behind the consultants’ numbers, said District 2 Councilor Sarah Tracy.

“The goal will be to have clarification on the report’s conclusions and determine what they mean, exactly,” said Tracy.

“Ultimately, what happens next is up to the taxpayers,” said Freeport Town Manager Peter Joseph on Monday. “The job of the council is to get information out there for the general public. There is no action expected to be taken.”

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