FREEPORT – Issues remain between the Freeport Withdrawal Committee and the Regional School Unit 5 Working Group – particularly regarding tuition – but the stalemate around what is called the school of guaranteed acceptance may no longer be an impediment between the parties negotiating Freeport’s effort to withdraw from RSU 5.

The Maine Department of Education stipulates in withdrawal cases that students from towns that remain in the school unit be guaranteed a high school education for 10 years. Brunswick is expected to fill that void.

“The Brunswick School Department will meet in early August, and they will most likely be the school of guaranteed acceptance,” Withdrawal Committee member Rich DeGrandpre said Monday. “But we’re still in the process of negotiating how many Durham and Pownal kids will be coming to Freeport, and the tuition rate.”

The two committees remain at odds regarding how much the families of Durham and Pownal students should pay for tuition at Freeport High School, should Freeport vote to withdraw.

Another meeting between the Withdrawal Committee and the RSU 5 Working Group, which is negotiating on behalf of RSU 5, had not been scheduled by the Tri-Town Weekly’s deadline on Monday. Education Commissioner James Rier has notified the parties that unless he has an accord to consider by mid-July, Freeport residents might not be able to vote on withdrawal in the November statewide elections.

Michelle Ritcheson, chairwoman of the Working Group, said that the two sides left their July 9 joint meeting still with differences on the tuition rate. The Withdrawal Committee has offered to accept, or “grandfather,” Durham and Pownal students at Freeport High for the next seven years if Freeport withdraws. In such a case, the Durham and Pownal students would pay tuition to attend Freeport High.

The Withdrawal Committee, meanwhile, was scheduled to meet with the Town Council Tuesday night, after the Tri-Town Weekly’s deadline. Committee Chairman Peter Murray said last Friday that the two panels agree on 11 of the 12 statutory steps required for the commissioner to consider withdrawal, with the financial piece still to be negotiated. Still, the committee has sent a summary of what has been settled to Rier.

“We’re not convinced a tuition agreement is necessary,” Murray said. “We believe we have the nuts and bolts of a reasonable agreement. We’re not asking for his blessings at this point, we’re just keeping him in the loop.”

Murray, an RSU 5 board member, also said he expects the full board to convene a special meeting later this month to consider the matter. The board must approve any agreement between the Withdrawal Committee and the Working Group.

The Working Group met Monday night at Pownal Elementary School, but no joint meeting with the Withdrawal Committee had been scheduled.

“We need to get this agreement done pretty quickly if we want to stay on track for a November vote,” Ritcheson said.

Ritcheson said that the Working Group originally proposed paying the maximum allowable tuition, as determined by the state, which now amounts to $9,209 per student. The Withdrawal Committee wanted RSU 5 to pay the actual cost, which is $10,495 – a difference of $1,200. A total of 185 students from Durham and Pownal attended Freeport High School last year, she said.

“Typically,” Ritcheson said, “tuition students pay the maximum allowable tuition. Their position is that they want actual.”

Ritcheson said that the two panels moved closer together during an 11-hour meeting on June 26. The Working Group suggested a middle ground on tuition, which the Withdrawal Committee rejected, she said.

On July 9, the Working Group agreed on paying actual cost, but with a regulator on growth. The so-called regulator would limit any increase in tuition to 2.5 percent per year, she said.

“It’s a cap,” Ritcheson said. “They didn’t want the regulator on growth. That’s where we are.”

Murray said that the Working Group offer for a regulator cap came with strings attached.

“They asked for a variety of things, including that Freeport perform all administrative duties,” he said. “That’s a huge cost, and 2.5 percent is unacceptable in those circumstances.”

The July 9 meeting lasted for five hours, including four executive sessions when the two groups consulted with their lawyers. When they were at the table jointly, mediator John Alfano was at the table.

“We were very disappointed,” Murray said. “We thought we were going to reach an agreement. A tuition agreement is usually between two school districts that are up and running. We’re kind of getting our arms twisted behind our backs here.”


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