Freeport council: RSU 5 withdrawal study falls short
FREEPORT — The Town Council on Tuesday criticized a report by two education consultants commissioned to determine the costs and benefits of withdrawing from Regional School District 5.
Councilors did not vote on whether to put a withdrawal referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot. They closed the public portion of their meeting by saying they needed time to conduct their own research on the financial and pedagogical impact of withdrawing.
The RSU withdrawal study was one of three efforts in response to the June defeat of a $16.9 million proposal to expand Freeport High School and its athletic fields. First, the RSU board surveyed voters to see what aspects of the proposed renovations they might support. More recently, a citizen group has emerged to advocate withdrawal.
The council's action came as the School Board prepares to decide Wednesday night whether to add two bond questions to the Nov. 5 ballot that would authorize an expansion of Freeport High School and a new turf field. (That meeting was scheduled after The Forecaster's print deadline.)
Late last month, the Town Council received the results of a two-month study, which concluded Freeport would pay an additional $4 million per year for education if it withdrew from RSU 5, the district it shares with Durham and Pownal.
On Tuesday, councilors called that figure inflated and slammed the authors – former school Superintendent Jack Turcotte and financial consultant Charles Lawson – for failing to produce a report with more specific financial data, including a projected budget for a standalone Freeport school district.
"The problem we're having is that this analysis is just an initial analysis," District 2 Councilor Sarah Tracy said. "What we need, what we asked for, is a likely figure of what it would cost us (to withdraw from RSU 5). And what we've got is the worst-case scenario that doesn't account for any possible savings that we we might get from not educating" students from Pownal and Durham.
Melanie Sachs, a councilor at large, asked: "What did we pay you for?"
Lawson said there was a "misunderstanding of the nature of the assignment."
No one in the audience of about 35 people voiced support for the contents of the 29-page report.
Late last month, a new player emerged.
Since Sept. 27, a 20-member group calling itself Moving Freeport Forward has been circulating a petition for a citizens' referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot. The group wants to withdraw from the RSU.
Charly Haversat, the group's spokeswoman, said the petitioners have gathered about 65 percent of their goal of 500 signatures. The group plans to submit its petition to the town next week.
Several members of the group spoke at Tuesday's council meeting.
"I'm a results guy, not a process guy," John Egan said. "The process has taken its steps and we don't have a result. So you'll be hearing from hopefully 500 signatures about what the next step should be."
Jerry Antl, a member of Moving Freeport Forward with two children in the school district, said everyone would benefit from a return to the pre-consolidation system.
"I think that's the underlying public sentiment right now," he concluded.
Not everyone in the audience supported withdrawal. Beth Parker, a long-time School Board member, pointed to improvements at Freeport High School since it joined the RSU in 2009, including more AP classes and an influx of young teachers with fresh ideas. Those advancements could be undone if Freeport withdraws, she said.
But Parker, too, was disappointed by the report.
"I could've done that myself," she said.
A different question on ballot?
Meanwhile, the RSU 5 board was set to meet for a special session Wednesday to vote on whether to add two questions to the ballot:
- Whether to approve a $14.6 million bond for renovations and an addition to the school building, plus repairs to the main athletic field.
- Whether to increase that bond by an additional $1.7 million to build a synthetic turf field and eight-lane track to replace the grass field.
If both are approved, the total would be about $580,000 less than the $16.9 million voters rejected earlier this year.
The board met a week earlier, Sept. 25, to discuss the potential bond questions, but tabled the vote to allow time to review the information in the Town Council's withdrawal study.
"Will the board will go ahead with the bond for November?" School Board Chairman Nelson Larkins said. "I don't know that for sure, but there has been a concentrated push by this board to get those renovations done because if we do go forward as a consolidated district, we have severe overcrowding and the building needs a lot of work, no matter how many kids you have."
In June, the high school renovation 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 told the Facility Advisory Committee to conduct the community poll. The proposed bond questions are the result of that study.
Larkins connected the dots between the June election and Tuesday's meeting.
"If the school renovation bond was passed in November, would we really be doing all this?" he asked. "Is the end product that Freeport wants its high school building renovated or that Freeport really wants to withdraw? I think we've opened up a wider discussion that's very useful to everyone, but keep in mind, how did we get here?"