With vote 2 weeks away, Freeport debates withdrawal from Regional School Unit 5

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FREEPORT — A standing-room-only crowd spent nearly three hours debating the town’s potential withdrawal from Regional School Unit 5 during a public forum at Tuesday night’s Town Council meeting.

A Dec. 17 vote will determine whether the town moves forward with a stand-alone school district or remains part of RSU 5 with Durham and Pownal.

On Tuesday, after Town Manager Peter Joseph explained the 22 statutory steps of the withdrawal process, John Egan of the group called Moving Freeport Forward made a presentation detailing the proponents’ reasons for advocating withdrawal.

“We’re not going into the dark, folks,” Egan said. “We did this alone for decades.”

Part of the reason Freeport joined the RSU was that the state threatened the town with penalties for not participating, Egan said, voicing a sentiment that would be echoed throughout the evening. Those penalties never materialized for towns like Yarmouth and Brunswick, which chose not to consolidate, Egan said.

Egan was one of several people to point to school budget votes as a sign that change is needed. Pownal has voted against the school budget in all five years of the RSU, while Durham has voted against it four times. The budget has always passed because of Freeport’s larger voting population, which exceeds the other two towns combined.

Egan yielded the floor to Mandana MacPherson, who attempted to debunk a report by consultants that withdrawal would cost the town an estimated additional $1.6 million annually. MacPherson’s numbers suggested withdrawal would actually save Freeport about $170,000 per year.

Many of those who spoke during the forum were hesitant to put faith in any of the figures. Betsy Peters said estimating the costs and savings that withdrawal could create is like looking into a crystal ball. Another resident said the math “looks good on both sides,” and, “you can make the numbers look how you want to look.”

Tim Whitacre of Freeport recommended that people vote in favor of withdrawal because there would still be an opportunity to pull out in the future.

But Durham resident and School Board member Michelle Ritcheson noted that beginning the withdrawal process on Dec. 17 would be more than an exploratory step.

A committee would then have to create a withdrawal plan to ultimately be approved by voters, but there would be no “safety valve” until that second vote, Ritcheson said. Moreover, the withdrawal committee could spend up to $50,000 of taxpayer money that would never be recouped, and the School Board would have to simultaneously be determining a contingency plan for Durham and Pownal students.

Rod Regier said that in the years leading up to consolidation, there were concerns over whether there would be enough students or “critical mass” to fill Freeport  High School and maintain sports and extracurricular activities. If Freeport withdraws, he argued, many Durham and Pownal students might enroll elsewhere, putting the town back in the same predicament.

Shari Broder countered that smaller class sizes are more conducive to learning.

Kate Werner said if Freeport doesn’t withdraw, families will send their kids elsewhere. Another person said if Freeport does withdraw, it will delay the renovation of the high school, and that will cause the school to lose families.

Nearly every argument had a counter. Approximately 30 people spoke, and their comments were generally passionate and civil.

If withdrawal passes, the council is required to send a notice to the commissioner of education, who must also approve a withdrawal plan, explaining the reasons the town seeks to withdraw from the RSU. The council on Tuesday agreed it would use this language, if necessary:

“The town of Freeport seeks to withdraw from RSU 5 in order to explore greater flexibility in the administrative structure of our educational system, increase local control over budget expenditures, create a collaborative model with our community partners, and to increase the quality of education in Freeport schools.”

During the public comment, one person said that regardless of how the vote goes, he hopes there’s a good turnout at the polls.

“Whether you want it or don’t want it, vote your conscience,” he said. “I would hate to see this evolve on just 400 or 500 people voting.”

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or btwist@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @brendantwist.