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RSU 5 budget fails by 79 votes as Pownal, Durham voters balk

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RSU 5 budget fails by 79 votes as Pownal, Durham voters balk

FREEPORT — Voters rejected the Regional School Unit 5 budget by a 79-vote margin Thursday, 661-582.

The budget validation referendum held in Freeport, Pownal and Durham on June 25 brought out about 11 percent of registered voters from all three towns.

Almost 9 percent of voters cast ballots in Freeport, the only town where the nearly $23.5 million school budget for fiscal 2010 was approved, 479-70. In Pownal, where turnout was 32 percent, residents voted overwhelmingly against the budget, 382-34. Eight percent of Durham residents voted, and they were opposed 209-69.

While the residents in Pownal were expected to reject the budget, and Freeport residents were believed to support the budget, the outcome in Durham was a surprise. RSU Superintendent Shannon Welsh on Thursday night said she was shocked by the Durham vote.

"Durham was the swing vote," Welsh said. "This is a very big set back. I had not heard any negativity from the Durham voters. They didn't come out and vote against it at the annual budget meeting."

John Morang of Freeport, an RSU board member, said he did not expect the Durham vote to be so overwhelming.

"I was amazed at how the Durham vote was so one-sided," he said. "I had no idea. I thought they had been supporting it all along."

At the Durham polls last week, resident Milt Simon said he was afraid the tax increase facing Pownal this year would be repeated in Durham the following year.

"What will happen then?" he said. "This budget does not favor Durham. We can see that, and we need to keep taxes as low as possible."

Looking at their neighbors in Pownal, Durham Selectman Denise LaFlamme said residents are afraid of property tax increases and scared they, too, may have to leave their homes. She also said the town is expecting a property revaluation.

"We are OK this year, but it's going to hurt us hard next year," she said. "I don't think people knew what they were voting for or what consolidation really entails."

In Pownal, resident Carol Cyr said she was "very happy" to hear that Pownal and Durham residents rejected the budget.

"I am thrilled," she said. "I see this as a small victory. I am pleased people made themselves aware of the issue and stood up to defend it."

She said she thought consolidation was inevitable, but not under the time constraints and parameters of the law as it is written.

Freeport resident Peter Murray, co-founder of the grassroots organization Freeport Families for Education, said he wasn't surprised by the vote.

"This RSU is not good for anyone," Murray said. "It is not living up to the promises of the (Reorganization Planning Committee) process. As three communities, we need to figure out what to do."

Welsh said the School Board now faces more budget meetings, public hearings and another budget validation referendum in the coming months. The board is expected to meet the first week of July, she said, to set the new budget schedule. The school district will become operational July 1 and will work using the existing RSU budget until a new one is approved by voters in another referendum.

"We have to go slowly with purchasing and hiring," Welsh said. "The board needs to consider the next steps, use caution and move slowly."

Although the budget will change, residents are expected to pay their taxes as usual until a new budget is approved. The tax impact of the budget still reflects a 26 percent increase to Pownal residents over this year. They would pay $471 per every $100,000 of assessed value, a total increase of $341,000. Durham residents face a 7 percent increase, or $182,000, and will pay an additional $98 per $100,000. Freeport residents would pay just under 1 percent  less compared to this year, a reduction of $111,000. They will pay $7 less per $100,000 of assessed value.

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