RSU 5 withdrawal talks find areas of agreement, disagreement for Freeport, Pownal, Durham

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FREEPORT — Opponents and supporters of Freeport’s proposed withdrawal from Regional School Unit 5 agreed to agree and disagree last week.

In an April 16 meeting, members of the Freeport Withdrawal Committee and the RSU 5 Working Group hammered out common points of a possible divorce between Freeport and the two other towns that make up the school unit, Durham and Pownal.

Freeport, Durham and Pownal formed RSU 5 in 2009 under a statewide mandate to consolidate administrative staffing and expenses among neighboring towns. But Freeport residents grew skeptical of touted cost savings and other benefits of the consolidation, and in December voted, 953-768, to withdraw from the school unit.

As required by state law, a committee representing withdrawal proponents was formed in January. The committee drafted a proposal spelling out terms of the withdrawal, and began negotiations over it with the RSU representatives earlier this month.

The proposal must be approved by the state Department of Education, and will then go back to Freeport voters in a referendum before the town can officially withdraw from the RSU.

The state’s deadline for submitting a proposal was originally April 14, 90 days after the first meeting of the withdrawal committee. But last week, both sides agreed to ask the state to extend the deadline until June 30.

In their two-hour meeting, the committee and the working group reviewed a revised draft of the withdrawal proposal in exhaustive detail, sometimes even discussing punctuation.

They found much common ground.

For example, both parties agreed that after withdrawal, Freeport and the now-smaller RSU would each be responsible for transporting their own students, but would have the option of sharing that responsibility in order to reduce busing costs.

“We can collaborate all we want,” said Rich DeGrandpre, a Freeport town councilor who heads the four-member withdrawal committee.

But the committee and the working group were at odds over other terms of the proposal.

The biggest sticking point: how many students, and for how long, Freeport High School would be required to serve as a “backstop” if Durham and Pownal are unable to provide schooling on their own.

“We’re willing to be the school of record and backstop for some subset of students,” DeGrandpre said, “but we don’t want to have the new Freeport (school district) in a position that it is overburdened. The issue we have is a capacity issue.”

But Michelle Ritcheson, of the six-person working group, saw the issue differently.

“Unfortunately, the Freeport withdrawal is forcing Durham and Pownal to find a 10-year contract (for schooling). Someone has to provide that to us. And our position is that if you guys want to withdraw, it has to be you,” she said.

Despite the difference of opinion, and the legal fine-tuning that must be done to the proposal, both sides agreed that the ongoing, face-to-face discussion was productive.

“This is a way to get a soft step forward so we’re making some progress without locking things down,” DeGrandpre said. “If you just get into document badminton, it gets ugly.”

The next joint meeting of the withdrawal committee and the working group is scheduled for Thursday, May 8.