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Voters weigh Freeport High School renovations amid RSU discord

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Voters weigh Freeport High School renovations amid RSU discord

FREEPORT — With the possibility lurking in the background that Freeport may abandon Regional School Unit 5, residents of Freeport, Pownal and Durham will vote Nov. 5 on two bond questions worth a total of nearly $16.4 million to renovate Freeport High School.

Most of the proposed borrowing is in a 20-year bond for approximately $14.6 million to add a two-story, 30,000-square-foot addition to the high school. The addition, where the industrial arts building now stands, would contain a kitchen, cafeteria, band room and several classrooms, and be designed to accommodate a third-floor addition for future enrollment.

The school suffers from overcrowding, which is one of the primary reasons for the bonds. It rents portable classrooms to compensate. The Regional School Unit 1 Board of Directors estimates that enrollment, currently more than 500, will increase by nearly one-third over the next decade.

The bond would also renovate the school's oldest section, built in 1961, with a new entrance and more energy-efficient roofing and windows. Portions of the building that now fail to meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act, including some restrooms, would be brought up to code.

Finally, the bond calls for renovations to the school's athletic fields and infrastructure. The fields would receive a new drainage system, a bus loop designed to ease traffic around the campus would be added, and parking would be expanded.

The median estimated annual contribution for property owners, based on residential property taxes in September 2013, would be about $134 for Freeport residents, almost $181 for Pownal residents, and $136 for Durham residents, according to the RSU.

An accompanying 10-year bond for about $1.7 million would pay for a synthetic turf field and track to be used by 13 sports teams.

A turf field requires roughly $5,000 in annual upkeep, compared to nearly $23,000 in upkeep and repairs for grass fields, members of the renovation committee said. Moreover, if the bond fails, the school's fields will still require $473,000 worth of repairs to make them safe and usable, they said.

A new, eight-lane track would surround the turf. Freeport High School currently has no track; the school's track athletes travel to Bowdoin College to train.

For the second bond, the median estimated annual contribution for property owners would be $24 for Freeport residents, more than $32 for Pownal residents, and more than $24 for Durham residents, according to the RSU.

Tax increases would appear in two or three years, depending on the construction schedule. The target completion date for construction would be 2016.

Voters in June rejected a $16.9 million high school renovation proposal. After the bond failed, the RSU board surveyed voters to see what aspects of the renovations they might support. They cut $580,000 from June's measure and split it into the two separate bonds that will appear on November's ballot.

The June referendum was defeated 2,202 to 2,028. Freeport voters favored the project, 1,623 to 902, while Durham and Pownal voters rejected it, 828-287 and 472-118, respectively.

During a public forum at the high school on Oct. 16, Donna Boyles, a Pownal resident for the past 44 years, said it wasn't fair to heap all the blame for the June bond's failure on Pownal and Durham; Freeport had a much smaller voter turnout, proportionally, than the other communities.

"I hope more people from Freeport will turn out to support this vital issue (in November)," Boyles said. "Pownal has always valued a high level of education, and I think eventually we'll come around to supporting (the bonds)."

More than a dozen people spoke passionately during the forum's public comments.

Susan Karnes, of Durham, said defeating the bonds and trying to skirt by with minimal repairs to the school would be like "rearranging deck furniture on the Titanic." She then related a story in which the field at her daughter's softball game was so wet that the umpire couldn't make a call when a player slid into a puddle at home plate.

Former Freeport Town Councilor Joseph Migliaccio chastised the council for splitting the bond into two parts.

"If the first part passes (and the second one doesn't), I don't think you'll ever see, in the next 10 to 15 years, a new track and field," he said.

No one who spoke advocated voting for one of the bonds but not the other.

Tim Kieger, of Durham, said the process has soured Durham's and Pownal's relationships with Freeport.

"There's a lot of bad blood that's been spilled," he said.

Several attendees expressed concern and confusion over the movement to withdraw Freeport from the RSU, which has evolved since the June referendum failed, and how it would impact the bond votes.

Over the past month, a group calling itself Moving Freeport Forward has circulated a petition for a citizens' referendum to remove Freeport from the RSU. While the issue will not appear on the Nov. 5 ballot, it could go to voters as soon as January.

Some members of the School Board and the withdrawal movement have tried to downplay the connection between the withdrawal conversation and the renovation bonds, while others have acknowledged it head on.

A Durham citizens' group called Vote YES for Our School Committee issued a statement last week urging Durham residents to vote in favor of the bonds because if they fail, "it will greatly increase the likelihood that Freeport will withdraw from RSU 5." That would cause Durham taxes to increase significantly, the group said.

Three members of the School Board — Peter Murray, Valeria Steverlynck and John Ricker — voted at an Oct. 2 meeting against putting the bonds to a vote amid the talk of withdrawal, although they were the minority in an 8-3 decision.

"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," said Murray, who suggested putting the bonds on hold until early next year. "You don't want to do that. You don't want to be shopping for a new house in the midst of a divorce."

The board voted on Oct. 9 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 be spent if Freeport withdraws from the RSU.

"The bonds only authorize the RSU board to spend the money. They don't require that the money be spent," according to an RSU fact sheet on the renovation bonds. "If Freeport votes to withdraw, the bonds will not be issued and no money will be spent. Approving the bonds now means work can begin immediately should Freeport vote not to withdraw."

The RSU has also said there is "no realistic chance" that Pownal or Durham would be left footing the bill if Freeport withdraws after the renovation work is completed.

At least one person at the public forum was unconvinced by that language, saying he would like to "see it in writing."

Another speaker drew applause when he voiced support for the renovation bonds, and the RSU.

"I know some people are bent out of shape because it didn't pass the first time," he said, "but that's no reason to withdraw. We've got to learn to work together."

Freeport polls will be open Nov. 5 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the Freeport High School gymnasium, 30 Holbrook St. Absentee ballots are available at the town clerk’s office, 30 Main St. The deadline to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 31 at 6 p.m.

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