Forecaster Forum: RSU deserves careful consideration from Freeport

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I am a Freeport resident, parent of two children (one who has graduated from Freeport High School, and one who is a freshman), and a member of the high school Renovation Advisory Committee. Residents have come to me asking how I feel about Freeport’s possible withdrawal from Regional School Unit 5, and I think it’s important that people have the facts from which to base an educated decision.

We were forced into consolidation by the state with promises of financial benefits and penalties if we did not. None of these have materialized. We are in a partnership with two towns that are at a very different stage of their cycle of receiving state funding for education.

Freeport went through this about 10 years ago: becoming a minimum receiver from the state. Pownal and Durham have steadily seen their taxes increase over the past few years as they have seen their state funding decrease. Many in these towns have mistakenly blamed this on the RSU. But they are going to see tax increases every year for at least the next five years until they become minimum receivers. Pownal and Durham have voted down the school budget every time except for one time in Durham since the RSU was formed. The budgets have only passed because of Freeport’s votes.

So, what does this mean? It means that although the towns of Pownal and Durham may support education, they will be faced with tax increases no matter what for the next five or more years, while Freeport’s taxes remain even. This causes much rancor and distrust across the RSU.

On the other hand, I have seen the positive sides of the RSU. I have seen kids from the three towns come together and become one unified school at the high school. After years of bumps in the road, the travel is finally becoming smooth. Last year was the first graduating class from the new RSU that had gone through all four years in the high school.

After working for more than two years and spending countless hours on plans for the high school renovations, of course I would be disappointed if we withdrew now and all that work was put on hold. I predict that it will be at least two or three years before we would even vote on another plan to renovate the high school. And even then, are we guaranteed that Freeport voters would approve it? Especially if going it alone is more costly than staying in the RSU? I don’t think we can automatically assume that people in Freeport would support the renovation and fields.

Interestingly, Freeport has a lower median income than both Pownal and Durham, and a higher percentage of retired people. Are we really likely to vote to spend more money on education as a stand-alone school district, and then on top of it vote for renovations and fields? No matter what people may say, no one can make any definitive statements about what it would cost to renovate the high school as a stand-alone.

As a member of the Renovation Advisory Committee, I can honestly say that we do not know what it would cost to renovate the high school for a smaller population, but we know that no matter what the population is, we would need to replace the poorly built and uninsulated Industrial Arts Building with an addition. So, the cost might end up being not much less than Freeport’s share of the current bond, or $9.6 million.

It seems to me, however, that it is not primarily a financial decision. It is a decision of what we feel is best for our students. How can we give them the best possible education? Is it through the current RSU? Or as a separate, Freeport-only school system?

On Dec. 17, Freeport will need to make this very important decision. My hope is that people educate themselves with the facts, and make a measured, thoughtful decision about the future of education in Freeport.

Catherine Breer is a Freeport resident, artist and co-owner of Annie|Catherine, a Portland company specializing in designer stationery and accessories.