FREEPORT — Voters will determine Dec. 17 whether Freeport officially begins the process to withdraw from Regional School Unit No. 5.
The Town Council voted unanimously Tuesday, in a special meeting, to schedule the referendum, and authorized up to $50,000 to fund the withdrawal process if the referendum passes.
A public hearing in advance of the vote will be held Dec. 3 at 6:30 p.m. at Town Hall.
A citizens’ group called Moving Freeport Forward this month submitted withdrawal petitions with more than the 416 signatures required to force the referendum; the state mandates that such petitions contain signatures equal to at least 10 percent of the number of voters who participated in the last gubernatorial election.
Jerry Antl, one of the leaders of the withdrawal movement, asked Tuesday that the council move the election to Dec. 10 to avoid conflicts with the holiday season, but Town Clerk Tracey Stevens said the extra week will be needed to satisfy requirements for absentee voting.
Also Tuesday, consultant Charles Lawton presented a revision of an earlier study on the potential economic impact of withdrawal. He estimated that withdrawing would cost Freeport $1.6 million more annually than remaining in the RSU with Durham and Pownal, an increase from $14.3 million to $15.9 million.
“It’s not a prediction, it’s a thought experiment,” Lawton said.
Withdrawal proponents circulated a handout at the meeting that posed questions about the latest edition of the study, and aimed to show that the $1.6 million is inflated. Antl said the study failed to reflect additional savings that withdrawal would create in areas including payroll services and groundskeeping.
“I fundamentally believe that it was a better model (prior to the RSU) and there’s a better way for these three towns to collaborate,” former Councilor Joe Migliaccio said. “I wasn’t about to say this until I heard some of the proselytizing about staying together and why the students and community love it, (but) there are ways to do this and what I’d say to the Freeport taxpayer: You should wake up and look at why we’re paying more (than Durham and Pownal) at all when we do not get significant dollars from the state.”
Others sought to refute the secessionists’ claims.
RSU board members Beth Parker and Michelle Ritcheson argued that the new study may be overly optimistic with regard to projected tuition revenue from Durham and Pownal students, especially considering that very few Durham students attended Freeport High School prior to the RSU.
“Personally, if we’re going to spend $1.6 million dollars more, I’d rather see it go toward something, not nothing,” resident John Egan said.
Lawton on Oct. 2 presented the original version of the study, which failed to account for possible savings that might arise from not educating students from Pownal and Durham. That report, which was criticized by the council, said Freeport would pay an additional $4 million annually if it withdrew.
“It comes down to how we want to make decisions,” Town Councilor Andy Wellen said of the withdrawal vote. “It’s not just financial.”
While the new report does include some analysis of course offerings, Tuesday’s meeting featured almost no discussion of classroom education. Town Council Vice Chair Kristina Egan said perhaps the school could look at a reduction of Advanced Placement courses or staff to ease the burden on taxpayers.