FREEPORT, Maine — Residents on Tuesday voted 953-768 to withdraw from Regional School Unit 5, the district the town shares with Durham and Pownal.
Twenty-seven percent of the town’s 6,387 registered voters participated in the referendum, which was conducted as a snowstorm blew through in the afternoon and evening.
“I think this shows that the community of Freeport has a lot of questions about the RSU model,” said Jerry Antl, a member of Moving Freeport Forward, the group that filed the withdrawal petition in October. “They really want to find a better way to work with the other two communities. For me, personally, this shows there is some skepticism on the benefits that have been provided the past five years.
Freeport, Durham and Pownal formed RSU 5 in in 2009 as part of a statewide mandate to consolidate administrative staffing and expenses among neighboring towns.
“The state forced us to consolidate and promised that we’d have a lot of capital funds for new infrastructure,” Antl said. “They promised we’d have cost savings and the communities that did not consolidate would be penalized. I think the whole hypothesis behind the model was flawed to begin with.”
In the next step of the process, a withdrawal committee will be formed and charged with creating a withdrawal agreement. That agreement must be approved by the state Department of Education, and will go back to Freeport voters in another referendum before the town can officially withdraw.
“It’s far from over,” said Michelle Ritcheson, a school board member from Durham, who has voiced support in recent weeks for keeping RSU 5 intact. “There’s a lot of work to be done. It’ll be an interesting process.”
The withdrawal committee will include a municipal officer, a member of the RSU 5 board, a member of the public and a member of Moving Freeport Forward.
The committee will operate with a budget of $50,000, as dictated by the Town Council and approved by voters in Tuesday’s referendum.
Meanwhile, the school board will be tasked with negotiating school contracts for the students of Durham and Pownal, who could wind up back at Freeport High School, or with another neighboring school district.
A half-dozen people, all withdrawal supporters, gathered Tuesday at Town Hall after the polls closed at 8 p.m. to watch the counting of 1,721 paper ballots. They chatted in hushed, anxious, excited tones and hugged after Town Clerk Tracey Stevens announced the final tallies.
“The voters in Freeport are smart people, and I think our committee has done a good job of giving them the data to make a decision,” said Charly Haversat, who, along with Antl, spearheaded the withdrawal movement. “People here are what I would call pragmatic supporters of education. They’ve always been willing to put their money where their mouth is and recognize that good education is not something that can always be done on the cheap.”
Withdrawal proponents have cited the towns’ voting records on the school budget as a motivating factor for secession; Durham and Pownal have voted against the budget a combined nine out of 10 times during the RSU existence.
Haversat called Tuesday’s victory — roughly 55 percent to 45 percent — “heartwarming,” and said she’d expected a tighter race.
Not everyone read the numbers the same way. School board member Beth Parker, an outspoken critic of withdrawal, remarked at how close it had been.
“I was disappointed [with the outcome], but to me the numbers shows there’s a big divide in the town of Freeport,” Parker said. “With only 185 votes discrepancy, that’s what it says to me. So we’ll go through this process and see what happens.”