FREEPORT — Voters next week will determine whether the town begins the process of withdrawing from Regional School Unit 5 or remains part of the school district with Durham and Pownal.
Withdrawal will require a simple majority. If it passes, a committee will immediately be formed to create a withdrawal plan. If it fails, business will go on as usual for RSU 5, which was created in 2009 as part of a statewide consolidation movement.
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 – in this case, a citizens group called Moving Freeport Forward.
It’s unclear how long the process of creating a withdrawal plan would take, although it is expected to be between six and 12 months. During that time, the School Board would have to determine a contingency plan for students in Durham and Pownal, where there are no high schools.
Once the withdrawal plan is complete, it must be approved by the state education commissioner. Assuming that happens, Freeport residents would vote again, on whether to adopt the plan and leave the RSU.
Withdrawal would require another simple majority vote. If the plan 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. After Jan. 1, 2015, withdrawal will require a two-thirds majority vote.
Withdrawal proponents have advocated for a return to local control. They’ve cited school budget votes, noting that Freeport has used its larger voting population to muscle through the budget in all five years of the RSU; Pownal has voted against it five consecutive times, and Durham has voted against it four times.
In June, Durham and Pownal voters also killed a $16.9 million high school renovation bond that was supported in Freeport. The withdrawal movement sprang to life in the wake of that vote, although Moving Freeport Forward has denied the vote was a motivating factor in the decision to organize a withdrawal petition.
In November, Durham and Pownal voters opposed a $14.6 million high school renovation bond that passed overall by 72 votes. A second, $1.7 million bond to fund a new turf field and running track at the school was narrowly favored in Freeport, but failed overall. The School Board has said it will not issue the $14.6 million bond if the withdrawal referendum is approved on Dec. 17.
RSU 5 supporters have lauded increased course offerings and faculty improvements over the past five years, and pointed to cost savings. Consultants, hired by the town to evaluate the economic impact of withdrawing, estimated Freeport would save $1.6 million annually by remaining in the RSU.
However, their report – which, in an earlier draft, stated the town could save as much as $4 million per year – has been the subject of scrutiny from the withdrawal faction.
Both sides agree that Freeport High School, parts of which are more than 50 years old, needs serious renovations. RSU supporters have said that a withdrawal vote would mean delaying that work. Withdrawal proponents have countered that fixing the school’s administrative structure outweighs the short-term gains of beginning construction, and said a withdrawal plan could include renovation provisions.
The polls will be open Tuesday, Dec. 17, from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. in the council chambers at Freeport Town Hall, 30 Main St. Absentee ballots are available at the town clerk’s office, 30 Main St. The deadline to request an absentee ballot is Thursday, Dec. 12, at 6 p.m.