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Initial report: Freeport should stay in RSU 5

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Initial report: Freeport should stay in RSU 5

FREEPORT — A preliminary analysis suggests that withdrawing from Regional School Unit 5 could be unwise.

Meanwhile, a committee studying possible renovations to Freeport High School is still working on its recommendation, and keeping quiet on its progress.

In a recent letter to the Town Council, consultant Jack Turcotte wrote that educational programs at Freeport High School could suffer if the town withdraws from the RSU it shares with Durham and Pownal.

"Based on what I know so far, it will be very difficult to offer a comprehensive education program of studies at Freeport High School as you deal with declining enrollment and a loss of students," said Turcotte, who was hired by the Town Council in July to study the effects of a possible withdrawal from RSU 5. "You will definitely lose students; not just from the other RSU towns, but likely from yours as well."

Turcotte cautioned that his thoughts are preliminary; he and another consultant on the project are still gathering data and his opinion could change.

Turcotte also wrote that the financial aspect of the study has been delayed by staffing changes and vacations at the Maine Department of Education.

In response, the Town Council, during its regular meeting Tuesday, authorized Town Manager Peter Joseph to write a letter to the Department of Education, asking for an expedited response to the consultant's request for information.

Meanwhile, RSU 5 Superintendent Shannon Welsh said the Facilities Advisory Committee hadn't yet reached a decision on what it would recommend to the School Board. Welsh wouldn't characterize what direction the committee was favoring.

"I'm not going to go into that," she said during a telephone interview Tuesday. "(They) were looking at a variety of options."

The committee's recommendation is due to the School Board for its regular meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 11, in the high school library, 30 Holbrook St.

In preparation for that meeting, committee Chairwoman Kim LaMarre is drafting a recommendation and will circulate the draft among other committee members by email, Welsh said. There was no immediate response to a reporter's request to speak to LaMarre.

Welsh said the committee's recommendation will be distilled from a recent telephone survey of 445 voters in Durham, Freeport and Pownal. Pollsters asked voters a series of open-ended questions about the high school and potential renovation projects to see what options they might support.

The survey was a topic of discussion at the committee's Aug. 29 meeting, but Welsh wouldn't offer specifics.

"In their discussion, they gathered some really clear messages (from the poll)," Welsh said. "We just haven't wanted to release it piecemeal until they've talked it all through."

Welsh said she wasn't obligated to share committee's information until it's formally presented to the Board of Directors.

"I don't believe their materials are public until they release them to the board," she 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 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.

The day after the election, the School Board charged the Facility Advisory Committee to conduct the community poll. Welsh has said one possible recommendation is to put another bond question on the November ballot. The board will not make any decisions on the committee's recommendation until later this month, at its Sept. 25 meeting, Welsh said.

In July, the Town Council commissioned its study with Turcotte – a former superintendent – and financial consultant Chuck Lawson. Their study is due to the Town Council this month.

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