A disagreement on tuition for Durham and Pownal students who attend Freeport High School should Freeport leave Regional School Unit 5 has further distanced any consensus between the two committees negotiating that withdrawal.

Peter Murray, chairman of the Freeport Withdrawal Committee, said Monday that the RSU 5 Working Group is not offering a reasonable tuition rate. However, Michelle Ritcheson, chairwoman of the Working Group, which represents RSU 5 in the process, said during a marathon meeting June 26 that RSU 5 is willing to pay more than the state average, though she didn’t give a specific number.

Murray declined to reveal a figure that would be acceptable, but did say his committee is looking for an offer that represents “actual costs” instead of the state average.

Paula Gravelle, school finance coordinator for the Maine Department of Education, said Monday that Freeport is “right at” the average cost of $9,209.92 per student for regular secondary education.

Another meeting between the two panels is set for 6 p.m. at a site to be determined on July 9 – which is pushing the Maine Department of Education deadline for a draft agreement in order for Freeport residents to vote on withdrawal in November.

“They refuse to agree to a tuition based on the actual cost of educating students,” Murray said. “It feels like they’re negotiating a punishment for Freeport here.”

The two sides have been stuck on the so-called “school of guaranteed acceptance,” which is a state mandate for withdrawal to occur. According to that mandate, students in the towns left orphaned by a withdrawal must have their education guaranteed for 10 years at a high school.

The Withdrawal Committee has offered to “grandfather” Pownal and Durham students to Freeport Middle School and Freeport High School for seven years.

The Working Group has insisted that Freeport High School be the school of guaranteed acceptance, but the Withdrawal Committee, concerned with the cost of a possible school expansion, has balked. More recently, the Brunswick School Department has told the Working Group it would consider being the school of guaranteed acceptance. William Stockmeyer, the RSU 5 lawyer, said he believes Education Commissioner Jim Rier would work with them to make Brunswick the school of guaranteed acceptance.

Gravelle said that though a guaranteed school is not part of the 11 statutory steps the two sides must agree on, it is, indeed, a requirement of the Department of Education. Students in Durham and Pownal who are left without a school to attend must have that opportunity, she said.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be part of the agreement, but it has to be in place,” Gravelle said.

The two committees met for more than 10 hours last Thursday at the Freeport Community Center, in large part debating the capacity of Freeport High School – an issue associated with the guaranteed acceptance piece.

Murray and Ritcheson both confirmed via email Friday morning that the June 26 meeting, which had begun at 2 p.m., ended at around 12:15 a.m. Friday.

The two sides hunkered down separately with their lawyers and with facilitator John Alfano for several executive sessions to talk over the latest proposal.

Asked Friday afternoon if the two sides were close to an agreement, Murray said, “It’s hard to say. We thought we were getting close and then we found out that we had some pretty hard lines in the sand. There’s a pretty broad gap.”

The Withdrawal Committee and the Working Group bandied numbers around for hours as to how many Durham and Pownal students Freeport High should accommodate.

The two committees disagree on the capacity of Freeport High. The Withdrawal Committee says it’s between 430-445. The Working Group refers to numbers from the school’s architect, Lyndon Keck, which say the high school is at 80 percent capacity with 500 students.

From there, the two sides came closer together.

“We picked 450 as a reasonable number to provide a good education,” Murray said. “We’re pushing the envelope at 450.”

Murray then offered to take up to 80 Durham and Pownal students at Freeport High – 105 fewer than now. He also said that the Withdrawal Committee could accept all Pownal students at Freeport Middle School, as Pownal has no middle school.

Following another executive session, in which the Working Group hustled to a basement space, Ritcheson countered, saying that RSU 5 should have first refusal to fill a school with a capacity of 530. A floating, rather than a fixed, number of available spaces could work well for Freeport, she suggested.

“That would eliminate any need for expansion,” Ritcheson said.

Following another executive session, Ritcheson said that instead of working with a capacity number, a cap of 500 might work. There were 511 students at Freeport High this year, and 492 are projected to be enrolled this fall, she said.

Earlier, Ritcheson said that it was “obvious from press reports” there is a misunderstanding of the Working Group’s position. RSU 5 students would have school choice should Freeport withdraw, she said. Most parents of Durham and Pownal students do not want Freeport to leave RSU 5, but should that happen, most would send their children elsewhere, she said.

“So capacity is not a big issue,” Ritcheson said. “We have no interest in stalling the process.”

Kevin Nadeau of Durham was one of a handful of people in the audience at last week’s meeting. Nadeau is a member of the Durham Advisory Committee, which has worked with the Working Group on the issue from the town’s perspective. Pownal also has an Advisory Committee.

While most Pownal parents would not be inclined to send their children to Brunswick High, Nadeau said that RSU 5 wants right of first refusal on the number of slots not filled at the high school.

“Our proposal has no risk to them,” Nadeau said in the Community Center hall, while the groups were in executive session. “There is no risk they would be over capacity.”

John Lowe of Freeport also was in the audience. Lowe, a 1963 Freeport High graduate, sent his two daughters to the school.

“I’m kind of on the fence on withdrawal, myself,” Lowe said. “I just kind of want them to get on with it.”

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