FREEPORT — Regional School Unit 5 directors on Monday announced superintendent responsibilities next year will be shared by two part-time administrators while Freeport’s potential withdrawal plays out.
On July 1, William Michaud, who is currently serving as interim superintendent of the Yarmouth School Department, will become interim superintendent in RSU 5, working roughly Monday mornings through midday Wednesdays.
Michael Lafortune, former superintendent of RSU 23, which includes Saco, Old Orchard Beach and Dayton, will assume the role of assistant superintendent and work Wednesday afternoons through the close of business on Fridays.
“By law, there has to be one superintendent for each district, but in reality, we’ll be co-superintendents and we’ll both have full authority when we’re there,” Michaud said. “When you take the two skill sets and put them together, I think you end up with more than a whole.”
Michaud said he expects to focus more on budget issues, while Lafortune would tackle more of the curriculum and assessment issues.
Shannon Welsh, who has served as superintendent since RSU 5 formed in 2009, announced in January she will step down when her contract expires on June 30.
A search for a permanent superintendent will be difficult to conduct while Freeport’s potential withdrawal from RSU 5, which also includes Durham and Pownal, is pending. The town hopes to have a withdrawal plan approved by the state and ready for a voter referendum by November.
“I take no position on whether there ought to be a withdrawal or a breakup of the RSU,” Michaud said. “That’s not my role. My role is to ensure that the 1,800 kids who come to school there every day get the best education they can get.”
RSU’s Annual Budget Meeting, meanwhile, last week approved a $27.4 million spending plan for fiscal 2015. The meeting was held in the Freeport High School gymnasium.
Eric Horne, of Freeport, proposed two successful amendments, adding more than $33,000 across two budget articles to increase substitute teacher salaries. A recent change in the substitute compensation system from a day rate to an hourly wage has resulted in a reduction in daily wages from $75 to about $60, Horne said. He argued that Freeport has had trouble attracting substitutes as a result.
“I think $33,000 in a $30 million budget, I don’t know what the number is, but it’s got to be pennies,” he said of a resulting increase in the property tax rate. “I think a few more pennies for a good substitute teacher is worth it.”
Horne is married to Valeria Steverlynck, who sits on the RSU board.
Several residents and school staffers spoke in support of the amendments, saying Freeport High School students sometimes are sent to study hall instead of class because there is no substitute to teach them, and that teachers are losing their prep periods in order to cover for colleagues due to a lack of substitutes.
The final step in approving the RSU 5 budget is a validation referendum to be held in each of the three towns on June 10.
The budget would result in a 57-cent increase in the mil rate for Freeport property owners, or a 3.59 percent increase over the current fiscal year ; a $1.01 increase in the mil rate for Durham taxpayers, or 6.78 percent, and a $2.16 increase in the mil rate for Pownal taxpayers, a 6.21 percent increase.
There was a visible divide at the meeting between the Freeport constituents, who clustered on the bleachers in the back of the gym, and the Durham and Pownal residents, who mainly sat on folding chairs and accounted for most of the dissenting votes throughout the evening.
“We need to be frugal, and it’s just getting out of control,” said one Durham woman, who voted against nearly every budget article and declined to be identified. “I don’t understand why Freeport wants to pull out of the RSU. They stack the bleachers, they overrule everything, and we have minimal control. They basically shove everything down the throats of the other two communities.”
Talks between the Freeport Withdrawal Committee and the Regional School Unit 5 Working Group, which represents Durham and Pownal in withdrawal negotiations, have stalled recently, prompting a meeting last week with both sides and Maine Department of Education Commissioner James Rier.
The road block is a state stipulation that at least one school district must guarantee admission for 10 years to all students whose communities have been orphaned by RSU withdrawal, what the RSU 5 Working Group calls the “school of record.”
The group has insisted that Freeport serve as the school of record. The withdrawal committee says Freeport High School isn’t big enough to guarantee accommodations for all Durham and Pownal students for the next decade.
RSU 5 voters in November approved a $14.6 million bond to renovate and enlarge FHS, but all constructions plans were put on hold indefinitely when Freeport residents voted in December to withdraw.
Freeport is not obligated to serve as Durham and Pownal’s school of record. It does, however, need the working group to agree to a withdrawal agreement before it can go to the state for approval and eventually to residents for validation.
Some of Freeport’s pro-withdrawal residents have advocated for Brunswick, which enrolled Durham students prior to RSU consolidation, to serve as the school of record. Brunswick High School has about 780 students and a capacity of 1,100. Its enrollment dropped significantly after Brunswick Naval Air Station closed in 2011.
In an interview last month, Brunswick School Department Superintendent Paul Perzanoski said the department met with the working group in March and offered to extend a 10-year contract for Durham and Pownal students, but stopped short of guaranteeing 10 years of admission for all their students.
Michelle Ritcheson, who chairs the working group, said this week that Pownal is a “significant distance” from Brunswick and is “not all that interested” in sending its students there. “We don’t want to alienate that part of the RSU,” she said.
The withdrawal committee and the working group may bring in a facilitator to help advance talks. For now, it’s unclear whether last week’s meeting with the Department of Education will have a demonstrable effect on negotiations.
“I think it was helpful that we all heard the same questions asked and all heard the same answers back,” Ritcheson said. “Now we can all work under those same understandings.”
— Brendan Twist