It will be largely a matter of numbers when Durham voters decide on Friday, April 1, if they want the town to eventually withdraw from Regional School Unit 5.

A sign on Route 136 in Freeport, just before the Durham town line, expresses one opinion on the issue of withdrawal from RSU 5, which Durham voters will decide on April 1.

A sign on Route 136 in Freeport, just before the Durham town line, expresses one opinion on the issue of withdrawal from RSU 5, which Durham voters will decide on April 1.

Do they believe the numbers put forth by a member of their Budget Committee, whose research shows it would cost the town more money – not save it – to leave RSU 5? Is the fact that Freeport has six school board members to five for Durham and Pownal combined enough of an irritant to make them jump ship?

The withdrawal question tops a ballot that also includes a race for two, three-year seats on the Board of Selectmen. Incumbents Jeff Wakeman, board chairman, and Mark Blake are seeking to be returned to their seats. Wade Caplinger and Max Harvey Garcia are the challengers.

Michelle Ritcheson is unchallenged for her position on the Regional School Unit 5 Board of Directors. Kevin Nadeau also faces no opposition as he runs for another term on the Budget Committee

RSU 5 is bracing for the second withdrawal vote in less than two years. In November 2014, Freeport residents voted 2,228-2,152 in favor of staying with RSU 5. It’s also the second time Durham has voted on a withdrawal proposal.

The matter of withdrawal has created some hard divisions among residents. This week, Nadeau took exception to flyers being distributed at the Durham Get & Go.

He said Monday that the pro-withdrawal flyer wrongly accuses him of disseminating incorrect information on withdrawal. Nadeau said he heard of the flyer last Friday night from friends, went there and picked one up for himself.

On March 15, during a public hearing on withdrawal at Durham Community School, Nadeau made a detailed presentation on the reasons – many of them financial – for staying with Freeport and Pownal in RSU 5. Nadeau, a member of Durham Friends of RSU 5, spent considerable time developing a pro-forma budget, explaining what Durham’s costs would be if it leaves RSU 6. Nadeau estimates that it would cost the town $571,000 during the first year of withdrawal.

“I’m upset that my name is attached to the flier,” Nadeau said Monday, “but I’m more upset (about the) bad information out there. They’re not even looking at this rationally, they’re moved by their dislike of Freeport.”

Store owner Donna Church would not say if she wrote the flyer, or if she asked her clerks to distribute it. Church did say that the plight of people who can’t pay their taxes needs to be taken into account in Durham.

“So many can’t afford to pay their property taxes,” Church said. “I see women crying because they’re losing their houses.”

The pro-withdrawal forces are pointing at RSU 5 capital improvements as another reason to leave the district, claiming that RSU 5 is sinking the lion’s share of those funds into the four Freeport schools. Freeport High School is undergoing a $14.6 million renovation, and other schools in town need repair.

“More money has been spent on other schools because Durham Community School was new, but DCS needs three of its 10 heat pumps replaced a year at $180,000 a year,” Nadeau said. “As that building ages, it’s going to need a significant capital improvement plan.”

Alice McPeake, who supports withdrawal, said Monday that she is aware of the Durham Get & Go flyers, as a friend sent her a copy in an email.

“I don’t know how accurate those figures are, either,” McPeake said. “My main point is the loss of checks and balances on the school board.”

McPeake said that Durham residents got fooled once when the town considered withdrawal in 2012, and the estimated price tag for leaving RSU 5 was put at more than $1 million.

“I question these new figures, simply because we’ve been through this before and found out they weren’t valid,” she said.

Some people in the audience descredit Nadeau’s numbers.

According to Nadeau’s pro-forma budget, the added cost for this budget year is $571,000. Not only that, but Nadeau noted the cost grows year after year if operating budget growth rates for Durham as a stand-alone district and the RSU are both assumed to be 5 percent. The only way to get to a 5 percent reduction from current spending if the town withdraws is if $571,000 is cut from the pro-forma budget, and then an additional $223,293 is axed beyond that, according to Nadeau’s research.

Many of the people who believe Durham should stay with RSU 5, including those in Durham Friends of RSU 5, are convinced by these figures. Many of those who want to get out are not.

David Jordan, whose two daughters attended Durham Community School prior to the formation of RSU 5 in 2009, says the numbers speak the truth.

“The people who are for withdrawal are not doing their homework,” Jordan said during the public hearing. “The numbers are the numbers.”

Michael Stewart, a member of the Board of Selectmen, disagreed.

“I don’t believe the numbers being put up,” Stewart said. “I think they are very, very inflated, to make things look worse. It’s a guess.”

The makeup of the school board is based on population. Freeport has more residents than Durham and Pownal combined; hence, the 6-3-2 Freeport-Durham-Pownal split.

“We’re all part of the RSU now,” Jordan said. “Votes taken are in favor of the RSU. Freeport might have more voting members, but they’ve got more of a population. That’s just the way it’s done. I’ve never seen a vote that’s against the students.”

But Stewart and others who want Durham to withdraw consistently have pointed to that 6-3-2 split. They say it gives allows Freeport to flex its muscles in approving budgets that hammer taxpayers every year.

“I don’t like the way we’re treated by the RSU,” Stewart said. “We just wait until the RSU decides, and there’s more people in Freeport. If there were equal numbers on the RSU board, it might be a different thing. Their argument is you have to pay the teachers the big money. It seems like they’re trying to make an Ivy League high school in Freeport, and they’re doing it on Durham and Pownal’s backs. You’re talking millions of dollars they’re spending. How is that fair?”

Jordan was on the Durham School Committee prior to the formation of RSU 5.

“I see nothing but benefits from the RSU,” he said. “I’m not put off by the taxes. There’s a continuim of education. In the past, Durham Community School had its choice of a high school, but there was no clear path. The curricula were different. Now the teachers know what the students have to learn before they get to Freeport High.”

Jordan added that people who have children in the school system need to join the Parent-Teachers Association and vote at budget meetings, such as the one scheduled for May 25 at Durham Community School. Residents at the budget meeting have the opportunity to amend – up or down – any article on the budget warrant. The annual budget referendum is June 14.

Should Durham voters decide they want to withdraw, the town will notify the RSU 5 board and the commissioner of the Department of Education on the vote, and then Durham selectmen would establish a withdrawal committee. That committee would consist of one selectman, a member of the general public, a school board member and a representative from the filing group.


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