$23.5M school budget goes to voters in Freeport, Pownal, Durham

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FREEPORT — Nearly 500 Freeport, Pownal and Durham residents attended the first Regional School Unit 5 town budget meeting Tuesday night and ratified a nearly $23.5 million budget that will increase Pownal’s property taxes by more than 25 percent.

The budget now goes to a June 25 referendum vote in all three towns.

Residents approved all 18 articles on the meeting warrant, including a nearly $22.8 million operating budget that exceeds state Essential Programs and Services by $4.06 million. It also includes $620,000 in stimulus funds and $83,000 for the local-only portion of adult education, to create a total budget for fiscal 2010 of $23.48 million.

Some amendments to articles were proposed by residents who wanted to add services, including $15,000 for an athletic trainer, $20,000 to repair the bathrooms at Morse Street School, and additional high school teachers and classroom days. But some residents wanted to reduce line items, too – $100,000 in administration costs and $15,000 in transportation and buses.

RSU board member and Freeport resident Nelson Larkins said the recommended budget came from the work of all three town’s school committees, and had already been cut significantly. 

“Actually, the budget is 0.68 percent less in services from last year,” Larkins said. 

Residents voted article-by-article by voice and straw votes throughout the meeting. In a secret ballot required by state law, they passed an article allowing the town to exceed the EPS funding cap, 194-57.

Cliff Ruprecht of Durham, a former Reorganization Planning Committee member, urged the board to not add services, but to be considerate to those having financial difficulties.

“Just like people in their homes and businesses who are doing the same with less, the schools should try that this year,” he said. “We should think creatively about how to do more with what we have.”

Although many amendments were offered, none were approved and the budget passed as recommended by the RSU board.

Because of recent legislation that will allow Pownal a one-time valuation adjustment, and a decision by the Freeport School Committee to waive a tuition agreement, Pownal residents will see a their tax burden rise 26 percent instead of the 36 percent increase that was originally proposed by the RSU. For every $100,000 of assessed value, Pownal residents will pay $471, nearly $341,000 more than this year for the entire town.

In Durham, residents will pay $98 per $100,000 of assessed value, a 7 percent increase, to $182,000. In Freeport, residents will see a $7 savings per $100,000 of assessed value, or a total reduction of about $111,000.

Last week, 30 percent of registered Pownal voters supported a citizen initiative to withdraw from the RSU. While the vote was non-binding, it was intended to show residents’ displeasure with the financial plan.

Pownal resident and RSU board member Eric Dube said even after the Pownal vote to withdraw from the RSU and the vote to approve the school budget, he does not want people to become despondent.

“After tonight’s vote and and the vote to ratify this budget next week, we can’t forget about this until next spring,” he said. “We need to work even harder on a long-term plan for these three towns.”

Freeport Town Council Chairman Rich DeGrandpre said the meeting was an educational way for communities to work together.

“I am proud of the people who came out and stayed for this meeting,” he said. “It will take a lot more hard work, but we will work together over the years to make it work.”

But Rhonda O’Shea of Pownal, a former RPC member, said the process was frustrating.

“People are not very comfortable getting up and speaking in front of strangers, against the majority, and on Freeport’s home turf,” she said. “Plus, elderly people can’t get out and stay out so late, and the budget process can be daunting.”

She said maybe if there were more Pownal residents at the meeting, changes could have been made.

“I just don’t see how four new teachers are necessary for maybe six new students,” she said. “After that discussion, most Pownal people left the audience.”

RSU Superintendent Shannon Welsh said she was impressed by Tuesday’s turnout and citizen participation.

“To me, this is democracy in action,” she said. “The voters have a responsibility to educate themselves and advocate for what they believe in. We saw that tonight.”

Freeport Town Clerk Beverly Curry said she thought the first Town Meeting process went very smoothly. She said she was surprised at the turnout and hoped as many residents will vote in the budget validation referendum on Thursday, June 25.

According to the clerks of the towns, 275 of Freeport’s 6,400 registered voters attended Tuesday’s meeting, along with 110 of Pownal’s 1,250 registered voters and 62 of Durham’s 3,400 registered voters.

In Freeport on June 25, residents will vote at Town Hall, 30 Main St., from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. In Durham, votes will be cast at the Durham Elementary School, 654 Hallowell Road, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. In Pownal, residents will vote at Mallet Hall, 429 Hallowell Road, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net