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Freeport High School towns will confront old questions in new school year

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Freeport High School towns will confront old questions in new school year

FREEPORT — Overcrowding at Freeport High School won't be any worse this year than it was last, but that doesn't mean the troubles are over for the aging and cramped facility.

That's the assessment of Regional School Unit 5 Superintendent Shannon Welsh, who said the estimated enrollment at Freeport High School is relatively flat, at 540 students.

This year's flat growth is the outlier, however. In recent years, the student population has increased by about 3 percent annually, Welsh said. In the next five years, the student population is expected to surge beyond 600, while the school is designed to accommodate only 500 students.

The decades-old facility on Holbrook Street has been the subject of an ongoing, and often contentious, community conversation. That discussion will likely grow louder in September when separate studies are presented to the public.

On Sept. 11, the Facilities Advisory Committee will present to the RSU 5 Board of Directors its findings from a community poll. Around the same time, a pair of consultants will submit to the Town Council their analysis of a possible withdrawal from the RSU that Freeport shares with Durham and Pownal.

In the meantime, with school starting on Tuesday, Sept. 3, the school staff is busy getting ready. Principal Bob Strong said there will be very few changes this year, in terms of dealing with overcrowding. Many of the stopgap measures from the last school year will remain the same.

For instance, in several cases, two teachers will have desks within the same classrooms, Strong said. There will also be three or four teachers who won't have permanent classrooms, so they'll be pushing carts full of textbooks, a laptop computer and an LCD projector to available classrooms between periods. Also, study halls will be held in the cafeteria for lack of classrooms.

Strong said he will be paring down on the number of foreign exchange students this year to help alleviate overcrowding. Typically, about 10 foreign students attend a few weeks of classes at Freeport High School. This year, Strong is considering halving that number.

Many students at the high school are accustomed to the cramped quarters, simply because they've never known anything else, Strong said. Incoming freshmen might have the toughest time dealing with the situation. Transitioning from middle school to high school is inherently difficult, but overcrowding contributes to the unease.

This year's average student-to-teacher ratio at Freeport High School isn't yet known, nor is the actual number of enrolled students. That information won't be known until after the first week of school, Strong said.

In June, voters rejected a $16.9 million proposal to expand Freeport High School and its athletic field. The proposal was narrowly defeated – 2,202-2,028, 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 1,623-902. 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.

The day after the election, the RSU board voted to conduct a survey in the community, which was recently completed by polling company Triton, Welsh said.

Pollsters spoke by telephone with 445 voters in the three towns. The voters were asked a series of open-ended questions, beginning with a simple yes-or-no question: Did you vote to approve the renovation plan? If the answer was no, the pollster would ask if the voter would approve any less expensive options, among other questions.

Welsh said it's too soon to know if there was any consensus in the poll, but the Facilities Advisory Committee is meeting on Thursday to review the data and consider options. If appropriate, the committee might make recommendations to the RSU 5 board on Sept. 11.

"That's really a session for the public and the board to learn more about both the survey results and the committee's recommendations," Welsh said of the September meeting.

One possible recommendation is to put another bond question on the November ballot. Nonetheless, the board would not make any decisions until later that month, at its Sept. 25 meeting. That would give the community "time to think about it, talk about it," Welsh said.

Meanwhile, the RSU withdrawal study is progressing well, said Charles Lawton, the chief economist for Maine-based consulting company Planning Decisions.

Lawton is collaborating with a former school superintendent, Jack Turcotte, on the study, which was authorized by the Town Council in July. Lawton is working on forecasting student enrollment and analyzing the financial impact of withdrawing, while Turcotte is interviewing school officials and studying the potential impact to educational programs.

The withdrawal study is on schedule for mid-September. It's too soon to draw any preliminary conclusions, Lawton said.

Welsh acknowledged that two similar studies within a similar time period might  confuse the public, but the RSU board will do its best to keep things clear and incorporate the withdrawal study findings into its own recommendation, if appropriate.

In Strong's opinion, the best outcome is to allow the student population to grow, but increase the size of the high school. Student populations between 400 and 600 are best, he said.

"You're just big enough to offer a variety of classes, but not so big that you lose the the small school feel that we have here."

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.