FREEPORT – According to the founder of a group seeking to have Freeport withdraw from the Regional School Unit 5 it shares with Durham and Pownal, representatives from Moving Freeport Forward will submit more than 500 petition signatures this week that, once approved, could eventually allow town residents to vote on whether to return to a Freeport-only school district.

“We all benefit from more locally driven decisions on education and budget priorities,” said Charly Haversat, a Freeport parent and founder of Moving Freeport Forward, a grassroots organization that has been collecting signatures since the end of September. “We have a great starting point, and we can return to a more flexible partnership with our neighboring towns moving forward.”

The effort needed 417 signatures, representing 10 percent of the number of residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election.

Once the signatures have been approved by the Freeport Town Office, the Freeport Town Council must set a date within 60 days for a special election to vote on whether to officially start the withdrawal process. According to the Maine Department of Education, the article must specify a dollar amount to be raised to support legal and other withdrawal process costs. If approved, the council must then appoint a withdrawal committee to create a draft plan for the creation of a stand-alone school district.

That plan must eventually be submitted to the Maine Department of Education for its input before any local referendum can be held on leaving the RSU.

The petition comes on the heels of a town-commissioned report to study the cost and consequences of a stand-alone Freeport school district

The study, conducted by longtime Maine education consultant Jack Turcotte of Arundel and Portland-based Planning Decisions, was commissioned by the Town Council in July at the urging of residents who were unhappy with the defeat of a June 11 referendum that called for a $16.9 million bond to renovate Freeport High School. According to the council in July, the study was meant to look at potential costs to taxpayers and the impact a withdrawal would have on the curriculum. The consultants were also asked to work with town staff on a speculative, Freeport-only school budget.

According to the study, a stand-alone 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.

However, the consultants’ numbers have been called into question by Freeport councilors and residents alike, with some deeming the report nothing more than a worse-case scenario.

During its Oct. 1 meeting, the council blasted Turcotte and Chuck Lawson of Planning Decisions for not providing specific data for a stand-alone Freeport school district. At the urging of the council, they are expected to provide a more detailed analysis to Freeport Town Manager Peter Joseph in the next week.

“I’d like to thank the council for looking into what is really happening with our schools and budgets,” said Haversat. “It hasn’t been that long since we had our own school district, and our last local budget seems like a pretty fair place to start as we look forward.”

While the withdrawal process continues to gain momentum in Freeport, RSU 5 has a Nov. 5 referendum on a revamped renovation bond. The parallel withdrawal and renovation movements have cut into each other’s ranks, said school board member Valy Steverlynck during an RSU 5 regular meeting Oct. 2.

“What I see is a ton of confusion,” said Steverlynck. “People are telling me that they can’t vote for the bond and withdrawal.”

The Freeport High School Renovation Advisory Committee is recommending a base project for academic renovations and field repairs at a cost of $14,638,009. A separate ballot question, billed as a bond upgrade, would approve $1,718,891 for the construction of synthetic field surfaces.

Haversat does acknowledge her frustration with the results of the June vote, but insists Moving Freeport Forward has a broader agenda.

Jerry Antl, a member of Moving Freeport Forward, said the goal is to also foster a dialogue with Durham and Pownal to do what is best for the students. Durham residents rejected a proposal to pull out of the RSU in 2012.

“In the meantime, we’re going to help provide information about how the school district can move forward, “ said Antl. “We have a great history of hosting our neighbors at the high school and middle school, under a more flexible model that seemed to work well for everyone.”

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