Dueling cost estimates for Freeport's withdrawal from RSU 5

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FREEPORT — Residents on Nov. 4 will vote to decide if Freeport will withdraw from Regional School Unit 5.

The referendum question will ask voters if the town should leave the school unit it formed with Durham and Pownal in 2009, as part of a state-mandated school district consolidation.

A group called Moving Freeport Forward filed a withdrawal petition in October 2013. Freeport voted 953-768 last December to start the withdrawal process.

The Freeport Withdrawal Committee was formed in January to write the withdrawal agreement. The committee and the RSU 5 Board of Directors each unanimously approved the agreement at the end of July. It was then sent to the Maine Department of Education and accepted.

If the referendum fails, Freeport will remain in RSU 5. If the referendum passes, Freeport will withdraw from the RSU on July 1, 2015.

If that happens, RSU 5 students can still attend the Freeport school they would have attended for the 2015-2016 school year. After one first year, if RSU 5 students wish to remain in Freeport schools, they must be continuously enrolled. Freeport will grandfather these students for 10 years.

Freeport has also agreed to be the school of guaranteed acceptance for Pownal Middle School students for 10 years following withdrawal.

The maximum enrollment at Freeport High School would be 500, with exceptions to the limit for grandfathered students. RSU 5 would be required to send a minimum of 60 students to FHS, or pay the equivalent tuition rate. The tuition rate for these students would be the midpoint between the state-determined actual cost per student and the state average tuition rate. The tuition rate beyond the first 60 would be set at the actual cost.

The outcome could very well depend on how much money voters think withdrawal will cost or save, versus how much it would cost to stay in the RSU.

The withdrawal committee on Sept. 30 presented a financial analysis of a stand-alone Freeport school district. Estimates were made using the 2013-2014 budget.

If all tuition students, including Freeport students and 60 from Durham and Pownal, continue to attend Freeport schools, the town’s tax burden would be reduced by almost $289,000, the committee suggested. Without the 60 students from the other RSU towns, the tax increase could be nearly $345,000.

The total revenue for the proposed Freeport school district would be nearly $17.9 million, and the total expenditures would be $17.6 million.

The total tuition for students in kindergarten through eighth grade would be about $448,000, and for high school students it would be about $1.9 million. For the draft, 510 students were at FHS, 297 at Freeport Middle School, 267 at Mast Landing School, and 260 at Morse Street School.

The required local contribution would be about $11.5 million, with an additional local contribution of $2.5 million. Freeport would also receive $197,000 in revenue in non-shared debt from the RSU.

About $553,000 would come from a state subsidy and $165,000 would be a special education reimbursement from RSU 5.

Also, as part of the withdrawal agreement, Freeport will pay RSU 5 a reimbursement of almost $362,000 for its contributions to capital expenses and debt services.

But according to another financial analysis, completed by former Town Council Chairmen Rod Regier, Fred Palmer, and Ed Bradley, the numbers are different if the 2014-2015 budget is used.

Using the current year’s budget, if Freeport were a stand-alone district, there would be a loss of $274,000 if the current high school enrollment is maintained. If the 60 RSU 5 students don’t attend Freeport, there would be a loss of $907,000.

Michelle Ritcheson, a member of the RSU 5 Board of Directors and of the RSU 5 Working Group, said she is opposed to withdrawal, in part for the financial reasons.

“I think from my position it makes more sense educationally and financially to stay together,” she said.

Ritcheson said there has not been enough talk of how withdrawal would affect the students and their education.

“There hasn’t been anything as to how it looks educationally, for pluses or minuses,” Ritcheson said.

Anne Fuehrer of the group Yes for Freeport supports withdrawal and said voters need to remember “the heart and spirit” of Freeport. She said RSU 5 has changed Freeport schools.

“A lot of the things that have set Freeport apart have been forgotten in this process,” Fuehrer said.

She said she wants voters to realize how much things could continue to change if Freeport doesn’t withdraw.

“I think it’s lost on a lot of people that Freeport traditions are lost,” Fuehrer said.

Election Day is Nov. 4. Voting will be at Freeport High School from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.