Freeport RSU withdrawal panel seeks public input

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FREEPORT — The committee working on a plan for the town to withdraw from Regional School Unit 5 will host a panel discussion and public forum next week to solicit input on the future of Freeport High School.

The Freeport High School Community Visioning Forum is set for Thursday, April 17, from 6-9 p.m. at the Freeport Community Center. Former Portland Mayor Pam Plumb will serve as a facilitator, Town Councilor Rich DeGrandpre said, and education experts will answer questions regarding the town’s pending withdrawal from the school district that also includes Durham and Pownal.

“As we develop this withdrawal plan, we want to have an idea what the community is thinking,” said DeGrandpre, who represents the Town Council on the Withdrawal Committee. “We need answers to two or three questions.”

Foremost among them: Is there a place for Durham and Pownal students at Freeport High School?

If Freeport votes to withdraw, then Durham and Pownal students now attending Freeport’s middle and high schools will be grandfathered in and allowed to attend those schools through graduation, according to an informal agreement reached last week by the Withdrawal Committee and the RSU Working Group, which represents Durham and Pownal in the withdrawal negotiations.

Beyond that, everything remains up in the air. The Withdrawal Committee hasn’t decided whether to extend an invitation to Durham and Pownal students to tuition into a post-RSU Freeport High School.

“How large a school do we want?” DeGrandpre said. “That has a lot to do with its capacity and how many kids fit. We know the current capacity and we know it’s not enough. That’s why there was a bond passed to enlarge the school. The state tuition rate is $9,000, and the RSU currently spends $13,500 to educate kids in the high school. So whether it makes any sense to enlarge the school to tuition students to it, we need answers to those questions.”

The Working Group isn’t waiting around for Freeport’s invitation.

It has met with several school districts, including Brunswick, Yarmouth and Maine School District 51, which includes North Yarmouth and Cumberland, that may be interested in Durham and Pownal’s students, and the state education dollars they would bring with them.

“From our perspective, if withdrawal passes, Freeport essentially just becomes any other school we could send our kids to,” said Michelle Ritcheson, an RSU board member on the Working Group. “Without the ability to have seats on the School Board, they become another member of the pool that we can offer to our kids. The good news is we are surrounded by really good quality schools.”

In addition to the size of the student body, academic and extracurricular issues will likely factor into the forum discussion, DeGrandpre said.

How much budgetary implications will factor into the discussion is unclear.

On Monday, DeGrandpre said the committee hopes to provide residents with an outline of a budget – something to indicate whether they would pay more or less in the event of withdrawal – but that it won’t come until later in the process.

The Withdrawal Committee has said from the outset that it does not plan to craft a line-by-line budget for a stand-alone Freeport school district because it would be extremely difficult to do with accuracy and it is not in the committee’s charge.

That’s not good enough for some residents, including Chris Parker, who this week sent an email to the committee criticizing it for not developing a budget and for holding the forum the day before Good Friday, when many people may be traveling and attendance could be low.

“(It) seems this could be a calculated and underhanded attempt by the committee to get the results that they desire,” said Parker, whose wife, Beth, represents Freeport on the RSU 5 board.

At a Town Council meeting last week, Councilor Sarah Tracy expressed concern over piddling attendance at the Withdrawal Committee’s meetings, stressing the importance of this process to the entire Freeport community.

“It’s a little bit scary when you see how few people are at these meetings,” she said.

Freeport residents on last December voted 953-768 to withdraw from RSU 5. Once the Withdrawal Committee and the Working Group agree on a withdrawal plan, it must be approved by the state Department of Education. It will then go back to Freeport voters in another referendum before the town can officially withdraw.

The Withdrawal Committee and the Working Group have set goals of getting an agreement to the state by the end of June and holding a vote in November.

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or btwist@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @brendantwist.

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