DURHAM, Maine — Voters will decide in a referendum, set for Nov. 6, whether to remain a part of Regional School Unit 5 with Pownal and Freeport or to bail out and operate as a stand-alone school district.
The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously Tuesday to put the issue before the townsfolk. The vote comes in the aftermath of a citizens’ petition to withdraw from the RSU and the formation of a committee to explore the pros and cons of an independent school stance.
The referendum also will include an appropriation of $50,000 to cover research, legal expenses and other costs associated with the withdrawal process.
Durham partnered with Pownal and Freeport after the statewide school consolidation effort implemented by then-Gov. John Baldacci in 2007. The reform measure was intended to improve educational efficiency by grouping proximal schools and eliminating spending redundancies. But, from the outset, many town residents have complained that Durham carries an unfair share of the RSU’s operating costs.
A seven-member Education Exploration Committee was appointed in August to analyze the district’s $25 million operating budget. They meet weekly to break out Durham’s share of the district’s cost and try to determine how much residents will have to spend to at least maintain the current level of service.
The committee will present its conclusions during a public hearing tentatively scheduled for 7-10 p.m. Oct. 22, in the Durham Community School gymnasium.
During a recent meeting, committee members warned that the price of autonomy could be high.
Even if the town breaks out of RSU 5, it still will have to honor the three-year contract negotiated this summer with the teachers’ union, as well as similar agreements with other faculty and staff.
In addition to hiring numerous new departmental administrators and staffers — particularly in special education — Durham would have to establish its own school board and obtain new software and networking systems for several departments. The town also would have to buy at least two new school buses and arrange to lease several more, as well as pay drivers and find garage and maintenance space. Physical plant costs such as athletic field maintenance and snow plowing will have to be hired out.
Additionally, several club level sports and extracurricular activities, such as field hockey, lacrosse and skiing, would be lost.
Durham has no high school, so it also would have to pay for its students to attend elsewhere. Prior to the 2007 school reformation, the town educated its children in its own elementary school through eighth grade and then tuitioned them primarily to Brunswick High School. Other students attended high schools in Auburn, Lisbon or Freeport.