UPDATED: Durham residents want out of school district shared with Freeport, Pownal

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DURHAM — Simon says it is time to consider withdrawing from Regional School Unit 5, and more than 250 residents agree.

Milton Simon, a member of the town Budget Committee, has submitted 255 signatures asking the Board of Selectmen to initiate the process of separating  from RSU 5, which also includes Freeport and Pownal.

“I’m saying if the door is open, we ought to look at it,” Simon said about initiating the protracted process that requires two local votes, formation of a local committee to create a withdrawal plan, and approval of the plan by the commissioner of the state Department of Education.

Town Clerk Shannon Plourde has certified the signatures, and Board of Selectman Chairman Jeff Wakeman said voters will likely be asked in a June 12 referendum if they want to begin actions to withdraw from the RSU formed in 2009.

Circulation of withdrawal petitions became legal Jan. 1, as part of the Reorganization Law passed by the Legislature in June 2007. The petitions require signatures from at least 10 percent of the number of local voters who cast ballots in the last gubernatorial election, and Plourde said Simon got about 85 more signatures than needed.

Simon said it took less than two weeks to gather the signatures, and he could have gathered more but wanted to get the petition in front of selectmen for their meeting this month.

He said he has not taken a position on whether the town should withdraw, but said revisions to the school reorganization law could return local control and reduce the local tax burden.

The petition is the first step in a process that could eventually require two-thirds of Durham voters to approve leaving the RSU. A bill pending in the Legislature may reduce that majority to a simple one; it has been moved out of the 14-member Education and Cultural Affairs Committee with an “Ought to Pass” recommendation.

The provision allowing a simple majority for withdrawals from RSUs would last for two years, but votes in both houses of the Legislature have not been scheduled.

Wakeman said selectmen will discuss allocating funds to pay for the withdrawal process and are considering placing a funding request on the warrant for the Town Meeting in April. A public hearing will be scheduled before the June referendum.

The reorganization law says if voters approve going forward, selectmen will be required to notify RSU 5 Superintendent Shannon Welsh and explain why withdrawal is justified.

A local committee of one selectmen, one petitioner, a Durham School Board member and a member of the general public must then convene to create a withdrawal plan subject to approval by the commissioner of the state Department of Education.

Welsh, the Durham school superintendent before the formation of RSU 5, attributed the withdrawal petition to small groups of residents who may be unhappy over a perceived loss of local control of schools and increases in property taxes.

The 11-member RSU 5 School Board has six Freeport members, three Durham members and two from Pownal, and Welsh said it is very rare that the six Freeport members hold sway over the other towns.

She also noted the increases in taxes in Durham stem largely from a bond to pay for construction of Durham Community School in 2010. RSU 5 budget documents show more than $1.4 million in debt service on the school in each of the last two years.

Since the formation of RSU 5 in 2009, Durham voters have rejected the annual school budgets each year. Simon said the lack of support for RSU budgets in Durham and Pownal indicates a desire for local control, but the budgets still pass because of support from Freeport.

Jane Blais, a School Board member representing Durham, said RSU5 has provided more access to educational opportunities for Durham children. She said her voice and opinions have not been ignored on what she called a “high-functioning” school board.

“Withdrawal from the RSU would be detrimental to the education of Durham’s students and, in the long term, to the wallets of our citizens,” Blais said in an email.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow David on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.