FREEPORT, Maine — A group advocating for Freeport’s withdrawal from Regional School Unit 5 has unofficially collected enough signatures to require a referendum.
The group, Moving Freeport Forward, has collected more than 500 signatures. It needed at least 415, or 10 percent of the number of Freeport residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election.
Moving Freeport Forward submitted the signatures to Town Clerk Tracey Stevens, who will verify them using the state voter registration system before presenting them to the Town Council at a special meeting on Oct. 29.
In light of an unclear state statute, the town is consulting with an attorney to determine when a vote must be scheduled, Stevens said. The petition’s organizers expressed confidence it would be held by early January 2014.
Charly Haversat and Jerry Antl, who have led the withdrawal charge, said the RSU that includes Durham and Pownal seemed like a good idea back in 2009, but it was built on broken promises and false assumptions.
“Going in, it was sold as cost savings and a good way for neighbors to work together,” said Antl, a nine-year Freeport resident who has two children in the school system.
“It seemed to be positive at the onset,” he continued. “But now, the past five years, the three towns haven’t been able to approve a budget collectively. So each school budgetary cycle we’re at odds with each other and it’s been a contentious issue that has drawn the towns further apart instead of closer together.”
Haversat, whose youngest child is a freshman at Freeport High School, added that “Freeport’s been able to muscle the budget through because we have the bigger population, but we don’t want to be in that position. That’s not fair to the other towns.”
In a recent letter to the editor of The Forecaster, Eric Horne, whose wife Valeria Steverlynck serves on the RSU board, argued that the consolidation has had a wholly negative impact on Freeport’s Morse Street Elementary School.
He noted a reduction in the number of education technicians and literacy strategists at the school, and said the RSU justified those cuts using comparisons to Pownal Elementary School and Durham Community School, which employ fewer assistants.
“It is time to recognize that the RSU system is not working,” Horne wrote. “It is time to move to a post-RSU model that gives local control back to the voters of each town — a model that doesn’t force some to pay up or others to level down. Only then will the sense of mutual respect and cooperation among the three towns be restored.”
The RSU board, as a unit, has not taken a stance on the potential withdrawal, although one long-time member, Beth Parker, supported the RSU at a Town Council meeting this month. She pointed to improvements at Freeport High School since 2009, including more AP classes and an influx of young teachers with fresh ideas. Those advancements could be undone if Freeport secedes, she said.
The withdrawal movement has complicated the Nov. 5 vote on two renovation bonds for Freeport High School. Some withdrawal supporters have said they will vote against the bonds, not because they are against the renovations, but because they feel a rejection of the bonds will assure support for withdrawal.
Other people have asked why the board would send the bonds, worth nearly $16.4 million, to a vote amid the withdrawal conversation.
The board response is that if the withdrawal fails, it will have a jump start on renovations, and if it passes, the whole thing is a moot point because the bonds will not be issued.
“We did approach the school board back in September and asked them to hold off on the renovation, putting it back out, until we got to vote on seceding from the RSU,” Antl said. “We were very transparent.”
Both Antl and Haversat stressed that the failure last June of a $16.9 million renovation bond, which was supported in Freeport but rejected overwhelmingly by the other two towns, is not their motivation for withdrawal.
They pointed instead to budget constraints, rising administrative costs, disproportionate costs for Freeport taxpayers, falling test scores and parents who have chosen to remove their kids from the school system.
Haversat declined to take a public stand on the Nov. 5 renovation bonds, but said, “I’ve got a kid at the high school. I can tell you right now, there definitely needs to be renovations up there. There’s nobody questioning that.
“Our committee is fully in agreement there needs to be renovations,” she said. “(But) do we need to do renovations to the tune of $15 million for 700 kids? Maybe not.”