FREEPORT — Town councilors and Durham and Pownal selectmen agreed Tuesday to request an audience with the Regional School Unit 5 trustees to discuss what some of the towns’ representatives see as unjustified budget hikes and a lack of transparency in the school budget process.
The groups met at Pownal Town Hall to discuss ways to work together and cut costs.
The representatives kicked around a variety of ideas, from sharing part-time staffers, to creating an email blast for all the towns’ residents, but the one concrete takeaway was the hope to meet as a group with the RSU 5 board.
“I think sometimes they don’t recognize the larger impact of the school budget,” said Town Council Chairman Jim Hendricks, who suggested that the RSU board hasn’t given serious thought to the council’s budgetary suggestions in recent years.
Others around the table echoed that notion, saying school budget increases have been too large and the reasoning behind them has been unclear.
Councilor Sarah Tracy welcomed the idea of the towns’ governing bodies meeting together with the RSU board, but said they should refrain from criticizing the RSU’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2015 until they fully understand it.
“If it’s a runaway train, then that’s a concern,” Tracy said. “But I think they’ve produced tight school budgets and they have been sacrificing.”
Inevitably, the subject of Freeport’s potential withdrawal from RSU 5 arose.
Pownal Selectman Fred Fauver lamented the road the towns have taken to this point, saying a particular group – presumably those in the Moving Freeport Forward camp, which spearheaded the withdrawal effort – “hijacked the RSU conversation.” Those individuals, Fauver said, were determined to blow up the RSU system rather than working to improve it.
“I don’t think we stepped up as adults,” he said.
Tracy stressed that withdrawal, which will require the support of another voter referendum in Freeport, is far from a done deal.
“It’s not black and white, even though what you read about it may seem a little more definite,” she said. “I think everyone is struggling with it.”
Mainly, though, Tuesday’s meeting focused on ways the towns can come together.
Councilor Kristina Egan extended informal membership in Freeport’s Active Living Task Force to Durham and Pownal residents, as a means of expanding connectivity, and bicycle and pedestrian access between the communities.
Hendricks raised the possibility of an agreement that would enable Durham and Pownal residents to use the Freeport Community Library; only Durham and Pownal students who attend Freeport schools now have that privilege.
A suggestion to consider consolidating the towns’ fire departments into one fire district met with resistance. But Pownal Selectman Jon Morris said it could create huge savings that would justify “changing the culture,” despite the historic and emotional ties that communities have to their fire departments.
“There are so many areas where we can combine services, and it’s only going to take one or two to break into it,” Morris said. “The more we collaborate, the easier it will become.”