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RSU 5, state education chief to discuss relief for Pownal

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RSU 5, state education chief to discuss relief for Pownal

FREEPORT — Regional School Unit 5 representatives and Superintendent of Schools Shannon Welsh will meet with Education Commissioner Susan Gendron this evening in Augusta.

They hope to negotiate a way to reduce the cost of education in Pownal, where residents will vote June 9 in a referendum aimed at repealing support for the consolidated Freeport-Pownal-Durham school district.

Laurie Poissonnier, chairwoman of the RSU board and the Durham School Board, will represent both of those boards. Jen Kaplan of Pownal will represent the RSU, and Carol Cyr of Pownal will represent the Pownal School Board. Freeport will be represented by RSU board member Beth Parker, who also sits on the Freeport School Committee, and RSU board member Nelson Larkins.

At an emergency RSU board meeting on Wednesday, May 6, the board discussed two approaches to negotiating with Gendron.

Board member Betsy Peters presented a plan for a one-year deferral of the RSU's operational date to July 1, 2010. She said the delay would allow board members to more thoroughly examine the educational and financial benefits of consolidation for the three districts. Another plan, presented by Larkins, would ask Gendron for additional funds to help Pownal and an alternative cost-sharing formula for the three towns.

The board unanimously decided to go with Larkins' plan, and the envoys will ask Gendron for additional funds to help offset an expected 36 percent tax increase in Pownal. They also hope to find out what legal steps must be taken to alter the RSU cost-sharing formula.

But Freeport Town Councilor Eric Pandora said reopening the cost-sharing formula would be a bad move for Freeport taxpayers.

"We haven't learned our lesson from the sub-prime mortgage fiasco," Pandora said. "People should not be forced to sign contracts that are not in their best interest."

Two other councilors, Chairman Rich DeGrandpre and Vice Chairman Bill Muldoon are also opposed to changing the cost-sharing formula. Thursday morning they sent a letter to Gendron opposing the RSU's proposal.

The councilors said the cost-sharing agreement has gone through extensive discussion and was a critical element of the approved plan.

They said they "support efforts made by this group to make consolidation work and would support a date change or pause in implementing the plan, but any change in the formula or change in the plan would require that we revisit school consolidation."

Welsh said the group still intends to talk to the commissioner about the funding formula.

"We will ask for her authorization to use an alternative method to establish budgets," she said. "We need to find out if this is a method that will require a referendum for all three towns, or is it a minor change that can be handled by the board."

Muldoon said any changes to the consolidation plan voted on by the residents of Freeport, Pownal and Durham would be a violation of the law and would have to go to voters for approval.

"The cost-sharing formula in place is the law, and any change to that is against the law," he said. "I believe that anything that would tinker with the formula would require a re-evaluation of consolidation."

Welsh said the representative group will also ask Gendron for $200,000 in stimulus money for Pownal in order to reduce the town's tax hike. Even with the additional funding, Pownal residents would pay 22 percent more in taxes than they paid this year.

"The $200,000 would bring the rate down to what they would have to pay if they didn't consolidate," Welsh said. The increase is in part due to a 13 percent rise in Pownal's property valuation, Welsh said, and a reduction in carry-forward funds from the current fiscal year.

"The $200,000 will go a long way to solving our problems," Welsh said.

The RSU board voted unanimously to present its ideas to Gendron, and hopes to elicit a response from her in time for the next public budget hearing on Wednesday, May 13.

Tonight's meeting was scheduled for 5 p.m., although a location in Augusta had not been specified as of 3 p.m. Welsh said she would write a summary of tonight's discussion and post it on the RSU Web site Friday.

"We need the commissioner to help us become an effective and efficient RSU," Welsh said, "instead of dissolving in front of her eyes."

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