Durham panel: Leaving RSU 5 would be costly
FREEPORT — A report by an advisory committee to the Durham Board of Selectmen says it would be more expensive for the town to withdraw from Regional School Unit 5 than it would be to stay.
The report, presented to the board Monday night, examined not only the financial cost of withdrawal from the school district formed in 2009 with Freeport and Pownal, but also the effect on education.
Durham voters will decide in a Nov. 6 referendum whether they want to formally explore leaving the school district. Under state law the town can withdraw from the RSU after 30 months.
Kevin Nadeau, chairman of the advisory committee, said based on the pro forma budget, it would be more cost-effective for the town to stay in the district, despite the challenges.
"Our objective was not to come out with a specific recommendation, but to provide the factual information that voters can take and use as part of the thought process when going to the polls on Election Day," he said. "The town benefits from being in the RSU and kids' needs are able to be better met within the school district."
The committee used current school costs, and in cases of shared expenses, such as the superintendent and special education, assumed a 30 percent share based on student population.
In the report, the committee noted school budget costs and property taxes have increased at significantly slower rates since the RSU was formed and are in line with historical trends.
Although property taxes have increased since joining the RSU, the committee's report shows that forming of the district coincided with cuts to state funding for education, increases in state property valuation and the start of debt payments on the Durham Community School.
According to the report, the formation of the RSU has only played a small role in property tax increases compared with other expenses.
One of the commitee's primary concerns was maintaining consistency in education, which could suffer if the town withdraws, Nadeau said.
"In the RSU there is consistent K-12 curriculum preparing (students) for what they're going to get later," he said. "If we withdraw, (kindergarten through eighth grade) education may or may not be in line with whatever high school they go to."
One of the complaints about the RSU system from Pownal and Durham residents is that due to a larger population, Freeport is allowed six seats on the School Board, while the other two towns account for five seats combined.
Although Freeport has the potential to overrule the other towns in decision-making, "there has never been a vote that split along town lines," the committee found.
If Durham decided to join or form another consolidated school district, the town's votes would decrease in all but one of the six surrounding communities considered by the committee, because those districts already have larger populations than RSU 5, according to the report.
The only students who would be immediately impacted by a vote to withdraw would be the students who attend Freeport High School, because they would be forced to find another school. Kindergarten through eighth-grade students would continue to attend the Durham Community School.
Durham has been in talks with other schools about transferring their students if voters approve the withdrawal, most notably Brunswick High School, which the town's high school students attended prior to the formation of RSU 5.
Selectmen Chairman Jeff Wakeman said although the town has made contact with Brunswick, no decisions have been made about where the students will go if the town withdraws.
"The only question that was sent out was, would that town be willing to talk with Durham if the referendum passed," he said. "That's as far as the talks have gotten."
Wakeman said the board will not make any recommendations to voters concerning the withdrawal.
"I think it's up to each individual person to decide based on what they've seen," he said.
Passage of the referendum will not guarantee, or immediately end, Durham's participation in RSU 5. It would allocate $50,000 for a committee to develop a withdrawal plan that must ultimately be approved by the state education commissioner and again by Durham voters.
RSU 5 Superintendent Shannon Welsh said previously that Durham's withdrawal would affect renovation plans for Freeport High School, which is operating at capacity.