Forecaster Forum: Freeport can't afford to leave Regional School Unit 5

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We all need to be realistic about what to expect if Freeport withdraws from Regional School Unit 5. I believe the answer is straightforward and clear: Withdrawal from the RSU will result in a smaller school population, fewer opportunities for our students, and a higher tax burden in Freeport.

I spent 11 years on the Freeport School Committee, and for most of those years I had the honor to serve as chairman. Through my years on the committee it became abundantly clear that our No. 1 challenge going forward was dealing with a static or even declining school population, while at the same time struggling with the growing costs of our aging infrastructure.

It was also clear that more and more students were considering alternatives to the Freeport schools, given the variety of private schools in the greater Portland area. There should be little doubt that a vote to dissolve the RSU will put us back into the same position we found ourselves prior to its creation. In fact, it is likely to be worse, because there is a much more robust school choice environment now than four or five years ago.

It is not at all a stretch to predict that Brunswick, Cumberland and even Yarmouth will vie for the attention of parents in Pownal and Durham, offering a safe haven from the turmoil created by the dissolution of the RSU, the downsizing of the Freeport school system (including its staff and administration), and, most importantly, an aging Freeport High School as compared to their modern facilities.

It may be that proponents of removing Freeport from the RSU are arguing that this will all be temporary and that students from Pownal and Durham will continue to tuition into Freeport. I agree that students already here will likely continue in order to finish, but I think parents in Pownal and Durham will be hard pressed not to consider offers from other quality school systems eager to have them.

Do people really expect parents to be loyal to Freeport if we vote to kick them out? The end result is a small high school, the very thing that we were trying to find a solution for before the creation of the RSU. The fact that it will be small is, in my opinion, guaranteed by the disruption and uncertainty that will be the product of the process of withdrawal from the RSU.

If I understand it correctly, the primary argument to end the RSU is a perceived lack of support for the RSU by Pownal and Durham. I strongly disagree. While one can focus on the votes in our partner communities, we seem to be forgetting the votes in our community. Let’s look at the numbers from the last two votes on the High School renovation.

In the Nov. 5 vote, as compared to the vote in June, support from Pownal increased by 100 votes and in Durham by 180 votes. The “no” votes in Pownal decreased by 77, and the “no” votes in Durham did not change. In Freeport, the “yes” votes increased by 16, while the “no” votes increased by 127. Since the bond passed by only 72 votes, it is abundantly clear that it passed because of the increase in support from Pownal and Durham.

What these numbers tell me is two things: There remains a strong concern in Freeport about our tax burden, while at the same time there is a strong core of committed parents and families in our partner communities. How clear can it be that we should be focusing our attention on nurturing this support and continuing to strengthen our schools, rather than fretting about the “no” votes that exist not just in our partner communities, but in our community as well?

What will be the voter support in Freeport if we decide to go it alone and a) the Town Council is asked by the schools for the Freeport taxpayer to immediately shoulder a burden of well over an additional $1 million just to run the schools, and b) Freeport taxpayers are asked somewhere down the road to pay for renovations to the high school on our own dime? If we foolishly go it alone, I do not envy the task of the Freeport Town Council when asked to consider passing on these large tax increases to our taxpayers.

We must remember what we have now. We have a committed group of parents and students in all three communities. We have a more vibrant sports program. We have more course offerings, and more support for our teachers. We have a school system that has the size to better withstand a challenging fiscal climate and to suffer less in a competitive school choice environment. The fact that democracy is a bit messy should not have us lose focus on the reality that we have secured the budgets we need and we have the opportunity of a lifetime to renovate our high school.

I urge Freeport voters to get out and vote to support the RSU and its promising future for our community and its taxpayers.

Chris Leighton is a Freeport attorney and was the last chairman of the former Freeport School Committee.