Board not ready to give up on Freeport High School renovations

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FREEPORT — A multimillion-dollar plan to renovate Freeport High School was nixed by voters last week, but it’s not dead yet.

Voters in Freeport, Durham, and Pownal might see a modified renovation proposal on their ballots in November, after the Board of Directors of Regional School Unit 5 voted unanimously June 12 to take another look at the issue.

This time around, however, the district will commission a poll to determine which aspects of the project residents might support. Then, at its Sept. 5 meeting, the board will consider a range of options identified by the poll.

If any of those options appear viable, the board could call a special meeting on Sept. 18 to discuss the possibility of a new referendum question, Superintendent of Schools Shannon Welsh said.

The poll, the cost of which the board capped at $5,000, will hopefully sort out the district’s varied response to the plan.

Those responses were on display at last week’s meeting during discussions by the board and the public, Welsh said. Some people said the bond question should have been separated into two questions to separately deal with improvements to academic and athletic facilities. Others said the scope of the project could have been reduced, Welsh said.

“We have heard a variety of things. The board wanted to get more information about the specifics,” she said.

The board’s decision authorizes several parties to work together to conduct the poll: the superintendent, the board chair and vice chair, the project’s architect, and a polling company. The decision also extends the life of the Facilities Advisory Committee, the group that had developed the $16.9 million renovation proposal that voters rejected by 174 votes, 2,202–2,028.

The committee has now been tasked with considering “which options, if any, we should bring back to the board,” Welsh said. “Do we try to reduce some of the renovations? Do we try to do some of it with our local budget, as compared to a bond? Did people need more information?”

The deadline for submitting a referendum question is 30 days prior to the election, but the board would seek to do it sooner, if appropriate, Welsh said.

“We want to make sure our voters are informed,” she said.

A polling company has not been hired, Welsh said. The immediate step is for the panel to meet, which could happen as early as next week.

Welsh said she and many others were disappointed by the outcome of the June 11 referendum.

“The facilities committee had invested so much time and energy in the project,” she said. “We were all very disappointed, because we truly understand the needs of the kids in that high school. There is overcrowding. It needs renovations. And the security and safety issues need to be addressed.

“This would have been the perfect time to make the changes with a bond, due to the interest rates.”

Lindsay Sterling, president of pro-expansion group Friends of Freeport High School, said the decision to conduct a poll is a good one.

“We were so close to passing this, I have no doubt that the survey will allow us to find the common ground needed to pass a renovation bond in November,” Sterling said in a written statement. “As for the 2,028 voters who wanted this whole package and nothing less, we can put our heads together to find ways to complete the vision.”

In Durham, however, where the bond question was crushed 828-287, the response to the board’s decision was different. Two organizers for the opposition said they were disappointed by the board’s persistence, but not surprised.

“Not at all,” said Donna Church, owner of Durham Get N Go – the town’s lone store. “Have you ever seen anybody who stops when they’re told ‘no’?

“They’re just going to keep doing it until they wear us down.”

During the run-up to the vote, Church erected 32 hand-painted signs urging Durham residents to vote against the project.

Church said she opposes the proposal on cost and principle. In 2008, when voters in Durham, Freeport and Pownal were considering school consolidation, voters were told that Freeport High School could adequately accommodate growth, she said. Just a few years later, the district proposed the multimillion-dollar renovation.

“They turned right around and did exactly what they said they wouldn’t do,” she said.

Church said she also knows what she’ll tell a pollster if she’s contacted.

“I think we should pull out (of RSU 5) immediately and go to Brunswick,” she said. “Brunswick has a new school and they have plenty of room.”

Durham resident Arthur Langlet also erected signs around town. Langlet said he opposes school renovations because property taxes are already too high. He said all governments should be “smaller and spend less money.”

Langlet predicted the school district will keep pushing for the renovations until voters eventually give up.

“That’s what governments do. They just keep coming back until the people get bored; until they can do what they want and spend what they want,” he said. “If you have an agenda, and you’re willing to fight long enough, you have a pretty good chance of succeeding. It doesn’t matter if people agree with you or not.”

If contacted by pollsters, Langlet said he will tell them he’d support annual bond payments for the high school if the board cuts an equal amount out of the annual operating budget.

“If you’re not cutting it out of the school budget, I’m not going to support it,” he said. “‘Need’ and ‘deserve’ are the two most dangerous words for governments to use when they’re planning budgets with people’s money. ‘Afford’ needs to be the word that is used from the start, and ‘afford’ needs to be the word used to the last.”

The defeated $16.9 million bond proposal called for renovations and several additions to Freeport High School, including nine new classrooms. The plan also called for an eight-lane track and athletic field to replace the current grass field.

The building, which dates back to 1961, has had previous additions in 1968, 1974, 1985 and 2003. The most recent addition added six science classrooms and a performing arts center.

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.