FREEPORT — Supporters and critics of Freeport’s potential withdrawal from Regional School Unit 5 will have an opportunity to make their case during a public hearing on Dec. 3 at 6:30 p.m. at Town Hall.
Freeport residents will vote on Dec. 17 to determine whether the town will split from Durham and Pownal to become a stand-alone school district.
If the withdrawal passes, a committee will be formed to create a withdrawal plan. The Maine Department of Education dictates that the committee consist of one municipal officer, one member of the RSU 5 board, one member of the general public, and one person from the group that filed the withdrawal petition.
Once the withdrawal plan is complete and approved by the state education commissioner, Freeport residents would vote on whether to adopt it.
At that point, withdrawal will require a simple majority vote. But if it fails and does not get at least 45 percent of the vote, the town would not be able to petition for withdrawal again for another two years. And after Jan. 1, 2015, withdrawal will require a two-thirds majority vote.
“This is the last chance for the town to have the debate and figure out what we want to do going forward,” said Jerry Antl of Moving Freeport Forward, the citizens group that filed the withdrawal petition.
“We’ve been out in the community talking to people, speaking to thought leaders, and we’re getting the word out on Facebook,” Antl said.
Representatives from Moving Freeport Forward say savings promised by the state prior to consolidation have never materialized, the Morse Street elementary school has seen a reduction in services, and the town pays a disproportionate amount of the RSU’s budget compared to the other two communities.
“I was tepidly in favor (of consolidation), but in retrospect, I think it was a big mistake,” said Eric Horne, a member of Moving Freeport Forward, whose wife, Valeria Steverlynck, serves on the RSU board. “The voting records of the towns is the writing on the wall.”
The Nov. 6 referendum on renovations to Freeport High School was the latest vote to show a deep divide between the three communities on school spending.
A $14.6 million bond passed by fewer than 75 votes; it was supported in Freeport, 1,639 to 1,029, and rejected by voters in Durham, 828-467, and Pownal, 395-218. A second track-and-field bond worth $1.7 million passed narrowly in Freeport, but was trounced in the other communities, and failed overall.
“We’re just on different pages when it comes to investment in education,” Antl said.
While the RSU as currently constituted lacks an organized advocacy group like the secessionists have, it is not without its supporters.
“I know what we could lose by withdrawing, and I don’t think we’re going to gain anything,” RSU 5 board member Beth Parker said. “The Moving Freeport Forward people, I don’t think their group is that large, but they’re very organized.”
Parker, who served on Freeport’s School Board prior to consolidation, said she worries that withdrawal will mean cutting important new staffers like the curriculum coordinator, as well as laying off the school’s best young educators due to seniority clauses in teachers’ contracts.
Problems at the Morse Street School have been exagerrated, in part because Principal Tom Ambrose is unpopular with parents, Parker said.
The RSU has taken a neutral stance on the withdrawal “because some people feel it’s not politically correct,” but eight or nine of the board’s 11 members are against withdrawal, Parker said.
“As evidenced by the Town Council report, it would take $1.6 million (annually) for Freeport to stand alone and get essentially the same program,” RSU 5 Superintendent Shannon Welsh said. “I think the kids from our three towns provide a vibrant, engaging high school environment, and I would want to see that continue.
“I worry about the amount of time it may take to negotiate an agreement which may finally be approved or may fail, and the impact that has on an educational program for all of our kids and our teachers.”
Welsh said she has already received calls from other school systems interested in having Durham and Pownal students enroll there if withdrawal passes, she said. One of them offered a tuition rate lower than the state average.
“It’s going to become a bidding war,” Parker said. “A lot of Durham people are going to be upset because they’ll no longer be on our board or have any say, so I’m not expecting a lot of them to come back to Freeport.”
The pro-RSU faction is also concerned that withdrawal will delay renovations to Freeport High School. The RSU 5 board has already said it will not issue the bond that was approved in this month’s election if withdrawal passes.
The withdrawal supporters say it’s more important to look at the big picture.
“There’s a cart-and-horse issue here,” Horne said. “A delay in renovations is certainly not in anyone’s interest, but to be in the wrong governance structure” would be even worse, he said.
Freeport isn’t the only place in Maine where discussions like this are happening.
As many as 22 of the state’s RSUs have had at least one community explore withdrawal, according to the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.
Just last week, Dayton voted to withdraw from RSU 23. The measure passed by an incredible margin of 733-18.
On Nov. 6, Saco also voted to leave RSU 23, which is now comprised of just one town, Old Orchard Beach.
“It kind of makes a farce of the RSU when there’s only one town in it,” Antl said. “All these towns having the same conversation as us, I think that’s indicative of the fact that the RSUs probably aren’t working as intended. I think there’s a clear trend there.”
Saco Mayor Mark Johnston said he is disappointed that Saco and other communities have given up on their RSUs so soon; he sees them as an experiment that would take five to seven years to properly evaluate.
A lot of it comes down to the current state of the economy, he said.
“Freeport feels it’s subsidizing the other communities,” Johnston said. “When (then-Gov. John) Baldacci put the legislation in for consolidation, the economy really hadn’t started to fall apart. Now there’s less money, and people become very selfish when there’s less money in their pockets.”
Johnston said a vote for withdrawal is really a vote for bigger government.
“I think that’s what Maine is all about,” he said. “Why do we have communities side by side and have two police departments, two fire departments, two public works? Maine loves to talk about less government, but when they have opportunities for less government, they’ve voted for local control. People don’t know what they really want.
“The costs of creating the RSU, I guess we (threw) that away,” Johnston continued. “You’re not going to recapture that investment. And the ill feelings between the communities, those are hard to mend. It’ll take a generation.”