Durham faces key vote in RSU 5 withdrawal process

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DURHAM — Voters will decide April 1 if they want to continue the lengthy process to withdraw from Regional School Unit 5.

If they do, the next steps in the 22-step process would require the town to notify the RSU 5 Board of Directors and the commissioner of the Department of Education. Durham selectmen would then establish a withdrawal committee to create a plan for leaving the school district shared since 2009 with Freeport and Pownal.

The panel would consist of one selectman, a member of the general public, a School Board member and a representative from the filing group – whose members have yet to be publicly identified.

“Someone from the petition group must come forward if withdrawal passes, to be on the withdrawal committee,” Board of Selectmen Chairman Jeff Wakeman said.

According to the withdrawal article on the April 1 ballot, the yes vote also would authorize spending of up to $50,000 to fund the withdrawal process. Much of that amount would be in legal fees.

Wakeman spoke during a public hearing on withdrawal, held March 15 at Durham Community School. More than 100 residents filled the school cafeteria, with several people offering opinions on both sides of the issue.

Kevin Nadeau, a member of the Durham Budget Committee and a backer of RSU 5, presented his pro-forma budget via an overhead projector, and fielded several questions. Nadeau also is a member of Durham Friends of RSU 5, which has maintained a Facebook page since the town’s previous failed attempt at withdrawal in 2012. The group distributed pink information sheets on withdrawal, headed by the words, “Withdrawal Makes No Cent$.”

Withdrawal from RSU 5 would likely increase property taxes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, Durham Friends of RSU 5 claims. The group, backed by Nadeau’s budget, argues that although taxes for education “have risen significantly,” this has not been caused by RSU 5 spending. It says state-level changes that have shifted more of the education funding to the local level are the culprit.

Nadeau had not yet taken the podium, though, when resident Alice McPeake made the argument for withdrawal, and questioned the information on the pink sheets.

“I feel these figures should be met with skepticism,” McPeake said, “if not disbelief.”

The information sheet also pointed out that, withdraw or not, Durham is on the hook for its share of a $14.6 million renovation of Freeport High School, to be paid in a 20-year bond. Durham’s annual share of the payment is almost $261,000.

McPeake, however, said that the high school isn’t the only one of Freeport’s four public schools that need work. Durham residents stand to help fund more projects to come.

“Durham has virtually no say in what RSU 5 spends,” she said. “In actuality, the Freeport school board members determine the budget. We pay what they say we have to pay. We’ve lost our system of checks and balances.”

The RSU 5 Board of Directors consists of six Freeport members, three from Durham and two from Pownal.

Nadeau then spoke at length, and answered questions from the audience.

According to his budget, the additional cost of withdrawal would have been $571,000 in this budget year. Nadeau noted the cost grows year over year if operating budget growth rates for Durham as a stand-alone district and the RSU are both assumed to be 5 percent.

The only way to get to a 5 percent reduction from current spending if the town withdraws is if $571,000 is cut from the pro-forma budget, and then an additional $223,000 is trimmed beyond that, according to Nadeau’s research.

In other words, the pro-forma budget would have to be cut more than $794,000 to save the median taxpayer $111 per year.

“There is no way that happens without negatively impacting our kids’ education,” Nadeau wrote.

Durham residents are also at odds with the process at the annual budget meeting, which for the first time will be held in Durham this year, on May 25. RSU 5 residents are free to amend spending articles from the floor, subject to a vote. Last year, two Freeport residents added $150,000 to the budget, which came in at a 7.7 percent spending increase.

The option to add or subtract from spending articles at the annual budget meeting is called the “open format,” as opposed to the “closed format,” which allows only amendments that decrease spending. Nadeau tried but failed to get the School Board to revert to the closed format during a meeting last month.

“From what I hear,” he said, “that was one of the major tipping points to this withdrawal effort,” Nadeau said. “But $75,000 of that $150,000 was never spent, and it was rolled over. It’s not true that Freeport is rigging the game. The state property valuation is the thing. People like to say it’s the school budgets that are driving this (tax increase), and it’s simply not.”

Terry Kirk, a fellow Budget Committee member, said from the audience that Durham’s tax increase in recent years amounts to a lot more than any 4 percent average increase coming from RSU 5.

Nadeau answered that Kirk was making his point.

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