FREEPORT, Maine — After months of buildup and debate, Freeport residents voted last week in a special election to create a committee to negotiate a plan for the town’s withdrawal from Regional School Unit 5.
The withdrawal process, however, is just beginning.
Ultimately, it will culminate with another referendum. Residents must still vote on a completed withdrawal plan that will finally determine whether Freeport secedes from the RSU it formed with Durham and Pownal in 2009.
It remains to be seen how long it will take to finalize the plan and how complicated those negotiations will become.
The next step is to form a four-member withdrawal committee. The Town Council will appoint three members — including a councilor, a member of the public at large, and a member of Moving Freeport Forward, the group that filed the withdrawal petition in October — at a workshop next week [the date was still to be determined as of Monday] or at its Jan. 7 meeting, Town Manager Peter Joseph said.
The RSU 5 board of directors will choose the fourth member, a Freeport representative from its own ranks, at its Jan. 8 meeting.
The state dictates that the committee has 90 days from its formation to create a plan. But in other withdrawal processes across the state, that has proved impossible.
“While the 90 days is in law, the practice of all these towns attempting withdrawal has been that extensions are given by the Department of Education, because the groups need to keep working until they reach agreements on all required elements of the plan,” Superintendent of Schools Shannon Welsh said.
The RSU board brought Dick Spencer, an attorney with Drummond Woodsum in Portland, to its Dec. 18 meeting to explain what to expect in the months to come.
Spencer, who has experience with 13 other RSU withdrawal plans, advised the board to create a working group of the five board members who hail from Durham and Pownal. That group would then represent the RSU board in negotiations with the withdrawal committee.
“The board is looking at a working group because they have a desire to empower Durham and Pownal representatives, who would ultimately be a new RSU 5 board, so they have the power to make decisions about their future,” Welsh said.
Determining where Durham and Pownal students will attend high school in the event of Freeport’s withdrawal is the most pressing issue facing the board.
By law, they would be able to attend Freeport High School for one year after the town becomes an independent school district. Beyond that, the board will have to negotiate an agreement with Freeport or another community. Tuition rates, the handling of state subsidies, and the potential for grandfathering current students will all be taken into account, Welsh said.
“Before the [state Education Department] will sign off on the withdrawal agreement as complete, the district will have to have a 10-year contract with a high school — which could be Freeport’s, but certainly may not be — to accept [Durham and Pownal] students,” Samantha Warren, director of communications for the Maine Department of Education, said in an email. “It doesn’t mean that all Durham and Pownal high school students will have to go to that school, but it means they will be guaranteed to have that as an option for 10 years.”
The withdrawal plan must be approved by formal votes of the withdrawal committee and the RSU board before being sent to the commissioner of education for approval, and finally going to a public referendum.
Since the state created the RSU model five years ago, 335 towns have consolidated. Nine have successfully withdrawn: Starks, Portage Lake, Frankfort, Glenburn, Veazie, Cherryfield, Eustis, Athens and Brighton Plantation. This fall, another six communities — Wiscasset, Saco, Ellsworth, Hancock, Lamoine and Dayton — voted to secede; their withdrawals will take effect on July 1, 2014. Arundel, Monmouth and a handful of other towns have rejected withdrawal plans over the past two years.
All these communities have found that the withdrawal process isn’t cheap.
Spencer said it costs a town and its school board between $50,000 and $80,000 apiece in legal and consulting fees to ensure the plan meets state requirements and secures a good deal for constituents. School boards don’t typically budget for withdrawal expenses — RSU 5 didn’t — and that can put them in a bind.
“When we went through the consolidation process, the state provided facilitators, support, human and financial resources, and they reviewed elements of the plan for us,” Welsh said. “They do not provide human or financial resources to deconsolidate. So it is left to the two parties, the town of Freeport and the RSU board, to pay for the support we need to make sure the taxpayers are represented and protected throughout the process.”
She paused, before adding, “To say nothing of the kids.”