FREEPORT — The committee planning Freeport’s exit from Regional School Unit 5 is not charged with building a budget for a stand-alone school district, but some residents are going to want to see one anyway before they approve a withdrawal plan.
That was the prevailing sentiment Feb. 6 at the committee’s public hearing.
“I strongly urge you to incorporate the development of a budget into your work plan,” Town Councilor Sarah Tracy told the committee. “If you do not choose to do this, I strongly urge you to communicate that to the Town Council early so that the Town Council can make a decision about how best to take those actions.”
Without a clear sense of the resulting costs or savings, Tracy argued, it will be impossible for voters to make an informed decision on Freeport’s withdrawal from RSU 5, which also includes Durham and Pownal. RSU 5 board members Beth Parker and Valy Steverlynck were among those who seconded Tracy’s call for a budget at the sparsely attended meeting.
Peter Murray, who chairs the withdrawal committee and sits on the RSU 5 board, said that, for the time being, the committee will focus squarely on the creation of a withdrawal plan, which will not include a budget.
“We’re not charged with coming up with a new budget for a new stand-alone school district,” Murray said. “We’re not charged with detailing staffing plans or exact school policy issues of how a stand-alone district would be operated. We are charged specifically and only with deciding how we’re going to split apart the RSU into a Freeport district and the rest of the RSU.”
He later added, “I anticipate that part of what we’ll do will involve financial analyses … but likely not an entire budget from the ground up.”
The committee has until April 14 (90 days after it was formed) to negotiate a withdrawal plan with the RSU board’s working group, which is comprised of board members from Durham and Pownal, and submit it to the commissioner of the state Department of Education. The history of RSU withdrawals across the state suggests the committee will require more time and be granted an extension.
Assuming the state approves it in time, the plan will go before Freeport voters in November. Withdrawal would require only a simple majority, but the number of voters would have to exceed 50 percent of the number of residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election, which would mean a minimum of around 2,100 voters.
After Jan. 1, 2015, state law will require a two-thirds supermajority to withdraw, although there will be no stipulation for voter turnout.
A bill currently on the legislative floor, LD 783, would eliminate the two-thirds supermajority in 2015 and require only a simple majority for withdrawal. Steverlynck encouraged residents to support the bill.
“It will eliminate the incentive for any one party to stall the negotiation, and it will keep things moving that’s important for kids,” she said.
Murray responded that he felt the withdrawal committee and the working group are both committed to timely negotiations and a November referendum.
The groups will have their first negotiation meeting on March 5 at 6:30 p.m. in the Freeport High School library.
Concerns about the size of the high school’s student body were also raised several times during last week’s public hearing. Some residents appeared to prefer a smaller school; others, including Tracy, said the school could struggle to field competitive athletic teams if the student body becomes too small.
“Can you still have sports teams and extracurricular activities that are robust and not anemic?” she asked.