FREEPORT – The public forums are history, and a decision in Freeport, where the question of withdrawal from Regional School Unit 5 is dominating the election conversation, is less than two weeks off.

It’s been an issue that has divided Freeport from its RSU 5 partners in Durham and Pownal since last winter, when the Freeport Withdrawal Committee began negotiations with the RSU Working Group.

Once the Withdrawal Committee and the Working Group hammered out an agreement acceptable to Education Commissioner Jim Rier in August, the discussion moved out into the community. For the past several weeks, Freeport residents have been debating the merits – mostly along budgetary concerns – of leaving RSU 5 and going it alone as a school unit. Emotions have run high at times during public sessions on the issue.

“Yes for Freeport,” which supports withdrawal, has taken up the cause with public appearances, letters to the Tri-Town Weekly and signs they’re placing along the town’s roadways. Six of the seven Town Council members are in their corner, as they indicated during their last meeting on Oct. 14. Only Vice Chairwoman Kristina Egan came out against withdrawal in the nonbinding vote.

“I was surprised,” said Yes for Freeport spokeswoman Marianne Doyle. “They’ve been reserved in expressing their opinions. I’m very pleased that six of them would come out in favor of this.”

“RSU 5 Better Together,” which opposes withdrawal, has been just as visible. They’re concerned that students will have fewer educational opportunities in a stand-alone school unit, and that there will be far fewer students from Durham and Pownal attending Freeport High School if withdrawal happens.

Betsy Peters, who helped organize RSU 5 Better Together, said she has no problem with the Town Council weighing in.

“Now everybody is out with their opinions and that is the way it should be in a democracy,” Peters said. “It’s only right for the voters to understand how this process stands.”

Peters said she voted against the consolidation vote that created RSU 5 in 2009, and that she sees “no inherent good” in the governance structure. But there’s a more important issue regarding withdrawal, Peters said, and that has to do with students.

“We have been a larger district and that enhances opportunity for students,” she said. “I don’t see how smaller can give us broader opportunities. I also think that money is not the be-all, end-all of education.”

As the vote draws near, Doyle said, it’s difficult to get a read on the mood of people in town.

“But from that Town Council meeting, when you get six out of seven, that’s very telling,” she said.

The Withdrawal Committee, working with Abbe Yacoben, the town finance director, has put forward two budget models in an effort to determine how much less – or more – Freeport residents would pay for education in a Freeport school unit. One budget analysis includes a Freeport High School with more than 500 students, the same as at the end of the 2013-2014 school year. Based on that, and other factors, the RSU 5 Withdrawal Committee is projecting a $14,002,178 budget in 2015-2016.

The Withdrawal Committee also has presented a scenario for 60 fewer students attending Freeport High, which would result in a cost increase of $343,695 to Freeport taxpayers, rather than the $288,876 cost decrease that could be saved compared to the $14,291,054 budget from 2013-14.

Three former Town Council chairmen, however, poked holes in the budget analysis based on the 2013-2014 school year. Fred Palmer, Ed Bradley and Rod Regier have devised figures of their own, based on a 2014-2015 model, that are less attractive to taxpayers.

“The impact on local funding could be significant,” Palmer said, displaying a chart with budget figures on a screen at an Oct. 14 hearing.

Palmer said that he, Bradley and Regier estimated costs on a line-item basis, based on the 2014-1015 model. With full enrollment, he said, there would be a $274,000 revenue shortfall. The deficit would be $907,000 should Freeport High lose 60 students following withdrawal, Palmer said.

“We’re looking at either a tax increase or school budget cuts,” he said.

Palmer added that the 2014-2015 RSU 5 budget is larger than the 2013-2014 budget, partly because of cost increases such as salary.

“By using the data from last year,” he said, “it basically pretends none of those things happened.”

Freeport voters have plenty of other choices to make on the Nov. 4 ballot. There are contested races for the state Senate and House, the Town Council, Sewer District and the RSU 5 board.

On the state ballot, Stan Gerzofsky, a Democrat from Brunswick, is involved in a three-way race for state Senate District 24, which was created through re-districting. It includes Brunswick, Freeport, Harpswell, Pownal and North Yarmouth. Gerzofsky was a three-term incumbent from the old District 10. He faces two other Brunswick residents, Republican Jennifer Johnson and Fred Horch, a Green Independent.

Freeport resident Sara Gideon, a Democrat, goes against Republican Paul Schulz of Pownal in House District 48. Gideon was the incumbent in House District 106.

On the municipal ballot, veteran Councilor Rich DeGrandpre is challenged for his at-large seat by Bill Rixon, a retired teacher. Vice Chairwoman Kristina Egan and Sarah Tracy are running unopposed for their Town Council positions.

The RSU 5 elections pose an intriguing sidelight to this election. Incumbents Nelson Larkins, the chairman, and Beth Parker both oppose withdrawal from RSU 5. Challengers Charly Haversat Matheson and Lindsay Sterling both favor withdrawal. The top two vote-getters will win the seats.

Three candidates are vying for two positions with the Sewer District Trustees. Michael Ashby is an incumbent, while Gerald Kennedy and Sally Leland would be newcomers if elected.

Signs of the time

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