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Freeport picks consultants to study RSU 5 withdrawal

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Freeport picks consultants to study RSU 5 withdrawal

FREEPORT — The town took another step toward a possible withdrawal from Regional School Unit 5, as Town Manager Peter Joseph was authorized to offer two consultants the task of studying the intricate withdrawal process.

During a special meeting on July 24, town councilors interviewed two candidates for the project during an executive session that lasted about two hours, Councilor Melanie Sachs said.

Instead of choosing one candidate, the council decided to offer the job to both candidates: Jack Turcotte, who is a former school superintendent Sanford and town manager in Old Orchard Beach, and Charles Lawton, the chief economist for Maine-based consulting company Planning Decisions. The pair will be paid a total of $9,500.

"It was a little unusual to split the job up," Sachs said, but "it was clear that they both have very good strengths in different areas."

Joseph said the exact working arrangement will not be determined until the end of the week. Turcotte and Lawton may submit one or two revised proposals on how their duties will be split. Once the arrangements are set, Joseph will hire them for the study.

The two consultants consider each other friends and have worked together on other similar projects, Sachs said.

Earlier in July, the Town Council voted to commission a study to determine the costs and benefits of withdrawing from RSU 5, which includes neighboring towns Durham and Pownal.

The study is a first step in a long, formal process that has been cropping up throughout Maine in recent years. Dozens of Maine towns have considered withdrawing from their RSUs, and a few have succeeded.

Sometimes, the process goes smoothly, other times it's rancorous. In Arundel, an effort to withdraw from RSU 21 was particularly combative.

'A horror show'

Arundel Town Manager Todd Shea said hard feelings still linger from the razor-thin defeat of the proposal in November.

"It was very divisive and still is," Shea said of the withdrawal effort. "It ruined friendships. People lost jobs. It was just a horror show."

A formal withdrawal study, particularly an independent one, should be a good thing for Freeport, Shea said.

"Search out the hard data," he advised. "It's very important that people don't act on emotion. They really need to do the homework."

Arundel, which shares schools and administrative staff with Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, began looking into a possible withdrawal in April 2012. 

Its study showed that withdrawing from the RSU would hurt the town financially. Any money Arundel might have saved by withdrawing would have been consumed by the cost of hiring its own school administration and providing special education services on its own rather than sharing services, Shea said.

Still, the numbers in Arundel had little effect on proponents of withdrawal. In the end, withdrawal was defeated by 145 votes.

Shea said Freeport should saturate its residents with findings from the withdrawal study through direct mail and advertisements as a means to combat misinformation.

'Small is beautiful'

In Cherryfield, a small town in Washington County, the outcome was very different. Cherryfield successfully withdrew from RSU 37 in May after a year-long process.

Art Tatangelo, 61, served as chairman of the Cherryfield Withdrawal Committee. The small size of the community helped keep the process civil, he said, which paid off for the long term.

"We're still friends," he said of proponents and opponents of withdrawal. "We still say 'hello' in the grocery store. We still say 'How's it going?'"

Before Cherryfield left, RSU 37 was comprised of six towns. The withdrawal effort began after the RSU administration announced their intention to close Cherryfield Elementary School, but residents overwhelmingly favored keeping it open.

The school issue sparked the effort, but a desire for local control fueled it throughout the year-long process, Tatangelo said.

"The bigger the system, the more gridlock there is," he said of the guiding philosophy behind the withdrawal effort. "Small is beautiful."

At the May vote, 88 percent of voters favored withdrawal. Now, the town will pay tuition to the RSU for its students to attend high school.

The tax impact will be nominal, Tatangelo said.

"It looks to me like it's going to be a wash for us. We're not a high-rent district, so we get some state subsidy, and we're not going to have a full-time superintendent," he said. "There are going to be some bumps in the road, but at this point, most people are feeling pretty good about this."

Freeport's decision to commission a study came in response to voters' rejection in June of a $16.9 million proposal to expand Freeport High School. The proposal was narrowly defeated – 2,202 to 2,028, a margin of 174 votes – but individual tallies from the three towns exposed deeper divisions.

In Freeport, the proposal was relatively popular among voters, who favored the project 1,623 to 902. Voters in the RSU's other towns, however, crushed it. In Durham, the proposal faced a landslide of opposition, 828-287. In Pownal, it was solidly defeated, 472-118.

During a council workshop earlier in July, councilors and residents expressed near-unanimous support for the study, but no one expressed an outright desire to leave the RSU without learning the facts.

David Harry contributed to this report. Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.