When I first started researching Durham’s potential withdrawal from RSU 5, there were many issues to consider, but the primary concern I heard involved property taxes.
There is a perception among many that the school budget has grown dramatically since joining the RSU, and that this has caused a large increase in property taxes. The data shows this perception is not accurate. The school budget average annual growth rate has actually been lower as part of the RSU (2.9 percent) than in the 10 years prior to joining RSU 5 (5.0 percent).
This isn’t to say many residents haven’t seen significant tax increases since Durham joined RSU 5 in 2009. However, just because two events occur at the same time, doesn’t mean one caused the other.
While the two primary reasons for tax increases occurred around the same time the town joined the RSU, they were not caused by the RSU and won’t be changed or eliminated if Durham leaves RSU 5.
First, in 2009, the town made its first interest payment of $89,000 on the bond for the gym, roof and heating system options at the new school that were not funded by the state, but were approved by Durham voters prior to joining RSU 5. In 2010, that payment jumped to $178,000 when the town started paying on the principal of the bond as well.
Second, in 2010 the town conducted a revaluation of all property. Many saw their tax bills go down, while many others saw their tax bills go up, due to increases in their valuation. That is the primary reason for the large tax increases some have seen since 2009.
Educational issues must also be considered.
Some advocate a return to a K-8 school district with high school choice. Prior to joining the RSU, that was all we knew. Many are more comfortable with this arrangement because it worked for them or their children.
Things have changed, however. Parents and students have had the opportunity to experience being fully participating members of a complete K-12 school district. They have seen the benefits that brings to the children’s education, and the community as a whole.
In all of the conversations I have had about the issue during the last several months, I do not recall even one parent with a child currently in the school system who wanted to go back to the way things were before joining RSU 5.
Many are concerned with the fact that Freeport has the majority of RSU 5 school board seats and a population larger than that of Durham and Pownal combined. I’ve reviewed the minutes from every RSU 5 school board meeting and there has never been a vote split along town lines.
Last June was the first time Durham residents voted in favor of the RSU 5 school budget. In previous years, enough Freeport residents voted in favor of the budget to offset the number of residents in Durham and Pownal voting against it. However, I believe that prior to this year, Durham voters likely rejected the budget because we mistakenly blamed the RSU for property tax increases as described earlier.
It is not a coincidence that an organized effort to provide voters with factual information about the school budget prior to the vote last June resulted in Durham’s approval of the budget. When provided with accurate information, sensible people make sensible choices.
The financial study completed by the committee appointed by the selectmen clearly shows that withdrawing from RSU 5 would cost the town somewhere between $900,000 and $1.14 million per year, even when compared to the cost of staying in RSU 5 and paying our share of a renovation and expansion to the high school.
Some may vote in favor of withdrawal because of how they feel about high school choice or because of their desire for more control of the K-8 school budget. However, they should not be under any illusion that either of those choices would save the town money, or be in the educational interest of Durham’s students.
They should know that there is a very high price tag attached.
Kevin Nadeau is chairman of the Educational Exploration Committee. He lives in Durham.