FREEPORT — The question of whether Freeport will remain in Regional School Unit 5 has been debated, studied and argued for about a year.

The Freeport Withdrawal Committee negotiated for months with a group representing Durham and Pownal, the other two towns in the regional school unit that was created in response to Maine’s 2007 school consolidation law.

Now it’s up to Freeport voters to decide whether to stay in RSU 5, or leave it.

“It’s probably the most important decision the town has made since we decided to consolidate into the district,” said Withdrawal Committee Chairman Peter Murray. “It’ll have a huge impact and bearing on where we go as a school district and what role education plays in our town.”

Freeport is one of 10 Maine communities, also including Windsor and Belfast, that will be voting Nov. 4 on proposals to withdraw from school districts created because of the state law. Raymond, meanwhile, is among the towns voting to study whether to withdraw, the first step toward a possible breakup.

If Freeport withdraws, it will be faced with the prospect of putting together a new school board and budget without tax revenue from Durham and Pownal. In addition, a bond for renovating Freeport High School that was passed by RSU 5 voters last year would lapse and have to be re-evaluated.

“It’s anticipated that the board would take a look at ‘Would we really build out as big as we were going to, or would we change the plans up?'” said RSU 5 School Board Chairman Nelson Larkins, a Freeport resident.

If Freeport does withdraw, big changes also would be on the way for Durham and Pownal, which would have to pay tuition to send high school students to Freeport or Brunswick.

No matter which towns remain in the RSU, the first challenge after the vote will be the search for a new superintendent. The current superintendent, Shannon Welsh, has announced her resignation effective June 30, regardless of the outcome of the vote.

The RSU 5 withdrawal requires a simple majority approval from Freeport voters, as long as turnout in the town is at least 50 percent of the total number of votes cast for governor in the last gubernatorial election.

To give voters more information on the potential costs that a withdrawal could mean to Freeport taxpayers, the committee put together a mock budget using numbers from previous years.

The mock budget says that if all the students capable of being sent to the district from surrounding communities take the offer and pay out-of-town tuition, Freeport will end up saving $288,876 a year. However, subtracting 60 tuition students from that amount leaves a $346,695 budget gap.

These numbers are just a rough estimate because there’s no way to know the total number of out-of-town students, what a Freeport school board would look like or what any federal contribution would be.

Murray urges voters to avoid focusing on any one aspect of withdrawal.

“I think the key point for the Freeport voter is to … not get lost in the weeds,” Murray said. “Think about this in a big-picture standpoint. What looks like the optimal way to deliver the best education? I think that’s kind of the bottom line at the end of the day.”

Regardless of how Freeport votes, both Murray and Larkins said plans are in place for whatever comes next.

To view the mock budget for an independent Freeport school district, visit freeportmaine.com, click the “Special Town Council Workshop” link under “Municipal News,” and follow the documentation links on the right.

The withdrawal vote comes more than a year after a proposed $17 million renovation of Freeport High School failed by a thin margin in a districtwide vote. A majority of Freeport voters approved the project, but the referendum’s ultimate failure was driven largely by voters in Pownal and Durham who were concerned about the project’s impact on property taxes. The vote and a desire to restore local control helped trigger the withdrawal effort.

Voters approved a revised $14.6 million high school renovation last November, but the fate of that project could hinge on the Nov. 4 vote results.

Chris Chase can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: cchaseCJ


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