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Voters get Freeport High School renovation bonds

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Voters get Freeport High School renovation bonds

FREEPORT — The Regional School Unit 5 Board of Directors last week added two bond referendums to the Nov. 5 ballot.

The School Board acknowledged, however, that the possibility of Freeport withdrawing from RSU 5 complicates matters considerably.

As a result of the boards' 8-3 decision on Oct. 2, voters on Nov. 5 will decide whether to approve a $14.6 million bond to renovate and expand Freeport High School, and a separate, $1.7 million bond to build a synthetic turf field and eight-lane track.

Voters in June rejected a similar renovation bond worth $16.9 million, about $580,000 more than the total cost of the two new bonds.

There will be a public hearing on the proposed renovations on Oct. 16 at 6:30 p.m. in the Freeport High School cafeteria. Attendees will be able to tour the school and review building plans with staff from PDT Architects, the Portland firm that has done work for high schools in Saco and Augusta in recent years.

Freeport's withdrawal from the RSU has gained momentum with some Freeport residents since the original renovation proposal was narrowly defeated in June. The proposal won in Freeport, 1,623 to 902, but in the RSU's other two towns, it lost in a landslide. Pownal voted against the proposal 472-118; Durham rejected it 828-287.

The Town Council also commissioned a pair of education consultants to conduct a study to determine the costs and benefits of withdrawing from RSU 5. At its meeting on Oct. 1, the council called the results of the study inconclusive and said it would require time to do its own research on the impact of withdrawing.

A citizens' group calling itself Moving Freeport Forward recently began advocating for Freeport's withdrawal from the school district. Members are collecting signatures in hopes of getting a withdrawal referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot.

School Board member Valeria Steverlynck said she would like to see the RSU remain intact. She voted against adding the bond questions to the November ballot, suggesting the board "wait until the withdraw motion plays itself out" and then putting the bonds to a vote in a special election.

"A lot of people who are seeking a collection of signatures for the withdrawal movement have already expressed publicly that they will not vote for the bond," she said.

If the bonds fail in November, "this board will basically be handing the keys of the Freeport schools to the withdrawal movement on a silver platter," Steverlynck said.

Peter Murray also voted against putting the bonds on the November ballot, saying a withdrawal vote appears inevitable and that it is unfair to ask voters to weigh in on the renovations in the midst of the withdrawal discussion.

"It's like one party saying let's go shop for a new house while the other party is saying I want to visit a divorce lawyer," Murray said. "You don't want to do that. You don't want to be shopping for a new house in the midst of a divorce."

He suggested the board revisit the renovations in early 2014.

Ultimately, though, a majority of the board expressed a desire to break ground as soon as possible to replace the aging, overcrowded high school.

"You have a core building that dates back to 1961," Chairman Nelson Larkins said. "I can't tell you how many people I've talked with who've questioned spending the money to renovate the school who've never walked inside it. And I always say, it's a lot of money, but you've got to see it to believe it."

On Wednesday, after The Forecaster's deadline, the board was scheduled to vote on a stipulation that if the bonds are approved by voters, the superintendent will take no action until authorized by the board. That item was created to reassure voters that the renovation money would not necessarily be spent if Freeport withdraws from the RSU, Superintendent Shannon Welsh said.

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or btwist@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @brendantwist.