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Regional School Unit 5 budget rests with voters in Freeport, Pownal, Durham

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Regional School Unit 5 budget rests with voters in Freeport, Pownal, Durham

FREEPORT — Residents of Freeport, Pownal and Durham go to the polls Thursday, June 25, to either approve or reject a $23.5 million school budget for Regional School Unit 5.

This is the first RSU 5 budget validation referendum, although residents from the three towns approved the budget's 18 warrant articles at a public meeting last week.

The RSU 5 consolidation plan was created by a Reorganization Planning Committee made up of residents, parents, school committee members and leaders from the three towns. The plan was designed so that each town shares the cost of running the school district based on how much they spend in addition to the required local contribution.

Freeport is responsible for 66 percent of the RSU cost, Durham's share is 21 percent, and Pownal will contribute 13 percent. Debt associated with the high school and the central office will be shared because all three towns will use the buildings, and all debt accrued after July 1 will be shared. But debt associated with the new Durham Elementary School, the Freeport Middle School renovation costs, capital improvements and lighting upgrades in Freeport will remain the responsibility of the individual towns because they were acquired before consolidating.

In addition to the unique cost-sharing formula and debt sharing , the RPC included a report from an Education Subcommittee highlighting the potential educational benefits of consolidation.

The 11-member RSU board has worked toward an operating budget to take to the voters ever since the RSU plan was approved last November. Each town's school committee created a budget for the RSU board to work with, and nearly $660,000 was cut from that.

The tax impact of the $23.48 million budget reflects a decrease of just under 1 percent for Freeport residents compared to this year, or a reduction of $111,000. They will pay $7 less per $100,000 of assessed value. Durham residents will experience an increase of 7 percent, or $182,000, and will pay an additional $98 per $100,000 of assessed value. In Pownal, residents will pay $471 per every $100,000, and will see an increase of $341,000 from this year, a 26 percent increase.

According to Paul Schumann, chairman of School Administrative District 62 and former RPC member, the 26 percent increase to Pownal taxpayers was caused by several factors, not just consolidation.

First, because of the sale of a few properties in Pownal last year, the town's valuation spiked. Then, a reduction in the amount of carry forward funds – from $205,000 in 2008 to $130,000 in 2009 – meant residents had to make up $75,000 in taxes. Schumann also said taking on their share of the RSU debt and additional operating expenses due to consolidation increased taxes, too.

"Residents need to know that the tax increase to Pownal is not all driven by consolidation, that there are other factors at work here," Schumann said. "Also, as people make decisions about consolidation and this budget, they should look beyond the immediate and focus on the positive long term options."

He said in addition to the hardship Pownal residents face this year, next year shows declining student enrollments, higher costs for new programs and less support from the state.

"It will be difficult, but if we walk away, where do we go?" he said. "Where do our children get an education?"

RSU 5 Superintendent Shannon Welsh said the board has worked to help reduce the burden in Pownal. The Freeport School Committee has waived $44,000 in tuition premiums for Pownal, and legislation was passed to allow a one-time valuation adjustment of about $80,000.

"We believe the voters affirmed the difficult work done by the RSU board at the town meeting," she said.

Laurie Poissonnier, chairwoman of the RSU board, said she hopes people will get out and support the budget.

"This budget shows a compromise from where we began," she said. "The board cut $620,000 before we brought it to the people. It is a frugal budget and there is nothing more we can cut, but it will provide a solid education for all students."

More than anything, she said it was important for people come out and vote.

"This board put together a budget that honors education," she said.

Durham residents vote at the Durham Elementary School, 654 Hallowell Road from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. In Freeport, residents vote at  Town Hall, 30 Main St., from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Pownal residents can vote from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Mallet Hall, 429 Hallowell Rd.

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