FREEPORT, Maine — The Town Council will commission a study to determine the costs and benefits of withdrawing from Regional School Unit 5, but the details aren’t yet clear.
The informal decision was announced Tuesday night during a Town Council workshop. About 30 residents attended the meeting and eight of them spoke during a public comment period, which lasted a half hour. Most residents spoke in favor of the study, but no one expressed an outright desire to withdraw from the district.
The workshop was held in response to voters’ rejection in June of a $16.9 million proposal to expand Freeport High School. The proposal was narrowly defeated – 2,202-2,028, a margin of 174 votes – but individual tallies from the three towns exposed deeper divisions.
In Freeport, the proposal was relatively popular among voters, who favored the project 1,623-902. Voters in the RSU’s other towns, however, crushed it. In Durham, the proposal faced a landslide of opposition, 828-287. In Pownal, it was solidly defeated, 472-118.
At the podium Tuesday, resident John Egan (no relation to Vice Chairwoman Kristina Egan) said the June election results underscore the “tension and the dramatic difference in view of taxes being used in education.”
Education dollars are a “welcome burden,” he added. “Many people feel like it’s important and it’s where we want our tax dollars spent.”
RSU 5 was formed in 2009 as part of a statewide mandate to consolidate administrative staffing and expenses among neighboring towns. The move was supposed to save towns money, but some Freeport residents expressed doubt during Tuesday’s workshop.
Kristen Dorsey spoke in favor of the study, saying it’s time to see whether the state’s mandate paid off for the town.
“It’s a good time to assess,” she said. “We can look concretely at what has played out.”
Dorsey said the study might also dispel or vindicate a widely held belief that Freeport is subsidizing education for the other towns.
Freeport resident Alan Tracy said he had no predisposed opinion on whether the town should withdraw, but added that a study “makes a great deal of sense” and funding a study would be “as important as anything (the council) has decided.”
Other residents cautioned against heated reactions to the June vote.
Beth Parker, a member of the RSU 5 Board of Directors and a Freeport resident, said she understands the “high emotions” surrounding the topic.
“I don’t want emotions to run crazy,” she said.
Parker said a formal study could be useful, but only if it looked as closely at academic impacts as financial.
Two residents thought the topic revealed poor sportsmanship among Freeport residents. Benjamin Kissin said any effort to withdraw would be like “taking our ball and going home.” Joyce Clarkson-Veilleux, who addressed the council via email, chided proponents of the withdrawal for acting like “3-year-olds having a temper tantrum.”
Councilors expressed unanimous support for a study, but didn’t take a formal vote. Instead, they are expected to take action at their July 16 meeting.
The councilors agreed that the study should be conducted by an independent consultant rather than a committee of councilors and residents. The third-party study would carry more credibility with the public, Chairman Jim Hendricks said; however, the town manager and finance director might gather and analyze data under the direction of a consultant.
The town manager will prepare a draft request for proposal in advance of the next meeting.
If the study shows that withdrawing from the district is financially advantageous, it’s still a tricky proposition. Even if the town votes in favor of withdrawal, the effort could be rejected by the Maine Department of Education.
According to state statute, municipalities must document 22 steps in the withdrawal process, which include three public hearings and four elections. In the final election, which can be held during a special Town Meeting, the effort must win by a two-thirds majority. Also, the number of votes must equal or exceed 50 percent of the number of votes cast during the most recent gubernatorial election.
In June, 2,525 Freeport residents voted on the high school expansion question, which is 64 percent of the 4,155 ballots cast by Freeport voters for gubernatorial candidates during the November 2010 election.
It’s also possible that withdrawing could prove more trouble than it’s worth.
Last November, voters in Durham overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to formally explore withdrawing from the RSU, 1,718-650. Seven months later, residents there defeated the Freeport High School renovation project.
According to some estimates, the entire withdrawal process can last between one and two years.
High school expansion redux?
Meanwhile, the RSU 5 Board of Directors continues to pursue expansion of the high school. One day after the June 11 vote, the board voted to conduct a poll to determine whether residents in the three towns might support other options.
Board Chairman Nelson Larkins said the Facilities Advisory Committee — the same group that developed the high school renovation proposal — met last month, but hasn’t taken any action. Nonetheless, polling could be completed as soon as mid-August, and the results could lead to another voter referendum in November, he said.
Larkins, a Freeport resident, said he’s not taking a stand on the withdrawal debate. The board’s role is to lead the district they are given, he said. But he’s unequivocal about the needs of Freeport High School.
“We already have too many kids in the high school for the facility we have, and we’re only going to get bigger. The school is old, it needs renovations and it needs expanding. Those are absolute priorities,” Larkins said. “We’ve got to figure out what to do one way or another. Does that mean parking trailers out in the parking lot as classrooms? Well, it might come to that.”
During the workshop, Councilor Melanie Sachs urged the council to expedite the study so it’s available to the public before the School Board decides whether to pursue another bond referendum.
The original $16.9 million bond proposal called for renovations and several additions to the high school, including nine new classrooms. The plan also called for an eight-lane track and athletic field to replace the current grass field.
The building, which dates back to 1961, has had previous additions in 1968, 1974, 1985 and 2003. The most recent addition added six science classrooms and a performing arts center.