Durham to vote on leaving RSU 5, eyeing Brunswick High School

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BRUNSWICK — The high school might reopen its doors to Durham students if the town of Durham votes to leave Regional School Unit 5 in a Nov. 6 ballot question.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski said he received e-mails from Durham’s Exploration Education Committee asking if the town would consider a 10-year contract to accept Durham’s average enrollment of 180-200 high school students into Brunswick High School.

“I think we could certainly use the numbers,” School Board Chairman James Grant said at the board’s Sept. 12 meeting.

Perzanoski said Tuesday the high school’s current enrollment is around 850, but it was closer to 1,200 before the closure of the Brunswick Naval Air Station.

“So we certainly have the capacity for Durham students to come,” the superintendent said.

Durham high school students were able to attend Brunswick High School before the town joined Regional School Unit 5 with Pownal and Freeport in 2009.

The town’s inclusion in RSU 5 was the result of a referendum sprurred by the statewide school consolidation effort, Durham Town Administrator Janet Smith said.

Durham’s kindergarten through eighth-grade students have been attending Durham Community School and will continue to do so, no matter what the outcome of the Nov. 6 vote.

Following the submission of a citizen’s petition that sought withdrawal from RSU 5 earlier this year, the Durham Board of Selectmen formed the Exploration Education Committee “to explore all available options for the future education of Durham students” before the referendum question is put to a vote, according to the town’s August newsletter.

“Their role was to present facts to the town so they can make an educated decision,” said Milton Simon, who started the petition, which received more than 250 signatures.

Simon said that once Durham went through a 30-month trial with RSU 5, state law allowed the town to reconsider its membership.

“So I think if we have the option, we should exercise that options,” the Durham resident said.

The Exploration Education Committee’s job includes opening discussions with nearby high schools for the town’s students to attend, since Durham doesn’t have its own high school. All of Durham’s high school students currently attend Freeport High School.

RSU 5 Superintendent Shannon Welsh said that while she respects Durham’s right to study the effects of a withdrawal, the town will find it beneficial to remain with the RSU.

Welsh said the Exploration Education Committee’s research has found that Durham “would see a significant increase in cost if they removed themselves from the RSU,” according to her correspondence with the committee’s chairman, Kevin Nadeau.

“We are fiscally responsible and studies done from outside (the district) show that we use our resources wisely,” the superintendent said.

For contract negotiations to begin with any high school in the area, Smith said, the town must first vote to leave RSU 5. If that happens, the Board of Selectman will have to form a withdrawal committee.

The committee would then create a plan to withdraw from RSU 5, which the town would have to vote on, according to the minutes from a recent Durham select board meeting.

But before the plan could take effect, Durham would have to sign a 10-year contract with a nearby high school to accept the town’s students, as required by state and federal laws.

This wouldn’t “technically” stop parents from choosing another high school for their children, according to Exploration Education Committee Chairman Kevin Nadeau.

Smith said if the town votes to withdraw from RSU 5 , a schedule for the transfer of students to new schools won’t be known until the withdrawal committee draws a plan.

Welsh said the withdrawal would affect renovation plans for Freeport High School, which is at capacity right now. The current master plan takes the population of Durham into consideration.

The RSU 5 superintendent said she wouldn’t go into detail about what the other possible effects of withdrawal would have on the district. Instead, she emphasized that the current arrangement is financially and educationally beneficial to the town of Durham.

“We’re focused on providing a world-class, cost-effective education for all of the students in the district,” Welsh said.

Until the Nov. 6 vote, the Exploration Education Committee is expected to explore all its options for the town’s students. The committee has sent e-mails to several high schools in the area to gauge how many students each school could accept.

The surveyed schools included Brunswick High School, Lewiston High School, Edward Little High School in Auburn, Gray/New Gloucester High School and Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham.

Welsh pointed out that the last time a 10-year contract was proposed by Brunswick High School, Durham refused because they would have been required to send 80 percent of their students to the school.

“If the parents chose to send the students to Freeport High School (under that contract), they would have had to pay the tuition costs to Brunswick High School in addition,” the superintendent said.

The Exploration Education Committee will hold an open forum to present the results of its research at 7 p.m. on Oct. 22  at the Durham Community School.

Until then, Perzanoski said, it’s just a waiting game for the Brunswick School Department.

“I’m behind bringing Durham back 100 percent,” Brunswick School Board member William Thompson said last week. “I think the students brought a lot to our school and budgetarily I think it makes sense. We should work with them as closely as possible to arrange a contract that works to both of our advantages.”

Dylan Martin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or dmartin@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DylanLJMartin.