Future Freeport: smart thinking about the community & economy of Freeport, Maine

Why I'm Voting Yes for School Consolidation, by John Gleason.

After a year's worth of meetings with the Reorganization Planning Committee, and with window cleaning birmingham which is  finally approaching, I wanted to share my thoughts on the question of consolidating the Freeport, Durham and Pownal school districts. In presenting the RPC's consolidation plan, we made every effort to do so objectively, outlining the plan's risks as well its benefits, so that voters could make an informed choice. We tried to not allow our personal views to slant the presentation of the plan to the voters. Now, with the public hearing process behind us, people have asked me whether I intend to vote for the consolidation plan. I am voting to approve the plan.

I was, and remain, very frustrated with the consolidation law, its mandates, and the manner in which it was passed in Augusta. I've felt the need, however, to put that frustration into Office Cleaning Bromsgrove and work hard –the law is on the books until a future Legislature changes it — in order to consider whether this plan makes sense for Freeport students and their families.

For those of us whose primary goal is the advancement of educational opportunities for our students, there is not an obvious right or wrong answer when it comes to consolidation. Ironically, while here in Freeport a great deal of energy is being expended on the consolidation question, both the proponents of the plan and its opponents are by and large committed and active advocates for a strong and high-performing school system. I believe the Freeport schools can move forward under either scenario, provided there is the public will and consensus to commit the resources to do so. In the end, however, I have concluded that a consolidated district provides greater promise of expanded opportunities and more effective expenditures.

I believe the plan we've developed is responsible and offers the opportunity to move Freeport and the other districts forward. The governance structure – with six Freeport representatives, three from Durham and two from Pownal –creates a workable board and allows an appropriate voice for each community. With respect to the portion of the overall budget that is determined locally – approximately 15% in additional local monies above the state-mandated portion - that amount is allocated in a manner that represents a compromise between assigning those costs purely on valuation versus assigning them based entirely on student population. Quickly – and for some perspective, given how the financial plan has been characterized by some – a pure valuation approach would assign 75% of this 15% "additional local money" cost figure to Freeport; an approach based entirely on student population would assign Freeport 59% of this 15% figure; our compromise assigns to Freeport 66% of the 15% of additional local money. If, after 3 years, the communities decide this allocation needs to be adjusted, the plan provides mechanisms to do so.

The administrative savings stemming from the consolidation of these three districts are relatively small, if they exist at all. If people are expecting that consolidation will reduce their property taxes, they are bound to be disappointed. All three districts have lean and efficient administrations, so it is not surprising that there would not be substantial savings from the combination. However, even the potential for modest administrative savings cannot be ignored, and it's possible savings may grow over time. And striving to achieve those administrative savings – spending our education dollars as wisely and responsibly as we can - - is a necessary step before we ask the public to support enhanced educational programs for our students.

There is no question that additional students will enable us to expand educational offerings. That was the conclusion of our education subcommittee. As we look to expand offerings in such areas as upper level language and advanced placement courses, that aim is more easily attained – and explained to a public that is questioning school expenditures – if we have the critical mass of students at the high school who would want to pursue those courses. I've also observed with frustration, from the vantage point of the School Committee, the elimination of academic and athletic programs as the student population has dropped in recent years. If we stand alone – and potentially even lose Pownal to another district– it will become very challenging, with a declining student population, to deliver the full menu of academic and extra-curricular offerings our students deserve. Opponents of consolidation have recently asserted that the projected enrollment figures utilized by the RPC are inaccurate and that, according to figures from Augusta, the student population in Freeport will stabilize or moderately increase over the next several years. However, even if we accept the figures of the opponents and project a high school with a Freeport student population in the low 300's, absent the inclusion of the Pownal and Durham students that will still leave us with a high school enrollment far below our current level of approximately 420. We've already had to discontinue freshmen sports teams at our current enrollment level; dropping by another 100 students will pose even greater challenges to the continuation of our current programs, let alone the addition of any new ones.

We've anticipated the need for additional teachers in order to maintain current class ratios, and those expenditures are in our financial model. I would not support a consolidation model that purported to save money by increasing class ratios. Our class ratios, in fact, have been a prime factor behind Durham's desire to join the Freeport system. I believe we've been open and above-board in identifying the need for additional teachers as the student population increases. As for the physical plant, despite the conclusions of the facilities consultant, there still could be a need one day to upgrade the physical plant at the high school as more students arrive. However, we may have such a need one day, even aside from consolidation, given the age of the older sections of the high school. In fact, we already have that need when it comes to athletic field space. As we've seen from a presentation before the School Committee this fall, Freeport already has a pressing need for additional athletic fields to accommodate our students, and consolidation will add to those demands. In the end, however, I believe the three communities would support those capital expenditures, as the needs arise, in order to enhance the opportunities for the students in all three towns.

Consolidation, as with any merger, takes a certain leap of faith, because you have to trust your neighboring communities (as well as your own) to support the goal of a high performing school district. As I have worked with leaders from Pownal and Durham, not only have I enjoyed them personally, but more importantly, I am impressed and reassured by their strong commitment to high quality schools. I have pestered them – probably too much – that the real promise of consolidation in these three communities lies not in administrative savings but in the ability to enhance educational programs. When it came time to submit the plan to the State, I asked the RPC to commit (granted, a non-binding commitment, as the decision must be made by the new regional board) that savings realized from consolidation would be dedicated primarily to improving educational programs and opportunities. The RPC – every member from all three towns - voted unanimously to do so.

We also would do well to learn from the students, as they often are ahead of us on these things. I was impressed that when the first Durham freshmen arrived at the high school this fall, and class officer elections were held, the freshmen elected as their president and vice president two students from Durham, and a class secretary from Pownal. That told me that despite misgivings in the three towns as to whether this consolidation makes sense, the students were comfortable and confident in welcoming the new students into the high school community.

John Gleason

I'm sure there are many other points of view to be added to this discussion. Please use the comments to chime in. Above all, please be sure to vote.



The Energy Crisis & Freeport, Maine–A Time for Big Thinking

Posted by Peter Troast

at October 4, 2008

Wasilla has been an epiphany for me.

On quite a few measures, the now famous Alaskan town and Freeport, Maine are remarkably alike. Wasilla's population of 9,780 just passed Freeport's 8,192 (2007 numbers). Municipal budgets, taking into account they don't pay for schools, are darn close. Median household income in Wasilla is $53,792 to Freeport's $52,023. Both towns have produced female Presidents of their respective State Senates. Perhaps we'll look back someday and say both were the hometowns of their state's first female Governors. (What do you say, Beth?) (Data sources from Wikipedia for Wasilla here and Freeport here.)

But there are differences too, and I'm not just talking about sprawl, meth and their backstabbing political culture.

Wasilla isn't bigger than Freeport. They just think bigger. They're unafraid of hiring lobbyists to go to Washington to get earmarks ($27 million worth from 96 to 02), making them the highest per capita recipients of federal dollars in the nation. When it comes to massive federally funded transportation projects, their ambitions, shall we say, aren't small.

All of which has got me thinking: why not us? (Don't worry, I'm not going to suggest we connect Wolfe's Neck and Winslow Park by bridge, though that would at least be a bridge to somewhere.)

I wonder whether we in Freeport get trapped in a mindset of small town Maine, confined by our state's stifling local funding model and reduced to incremental ideas like shutting Town Hall on Fridays to save $3000 per year.

OK, so maybe this isn't exactly primetime for lining up at the federal earmarks trough. But there are still lots of opportunities for bigger thinking for Freeport that can advance our town, help our economy and benefit our people. Here's just one.

Rising energy costs are very likely to be the greatest financial challenge we'll face as a town this winter and probably forevermore. We're holding workshops and reaching out to our neighbors–all good, important, laudable work, but not game changing. Meanwhile, around the country, innovative communities are profoundly impacting the energy crisis by using the power of the municipality to make alternative sources of energy more accessible to their citizens.

The simple but brilliant concept is to use the property tax as the source of long term financing for energy efficiency and solar projects. These programs–Annapolis, MD's EZ (Energy Zone) Program, Berkeley, CA's Sustainable Resources Energy Financing Project and the City of Palm Desert, CA's Energy Independence Program authorize the municipality to pay the up-front costs for energy efficiency improvements and installation of solar energy systems. Property owners then repay the cost of these installations, which can be as much as $30,000, over 20 years through a special fee on their property tax bill. The Berkeley program applies to both residential and commercial properties.

It's genius. The property owner gets total choice about whether the value is worth the tax increase. The additional fee remains tied to the property, the value of which has been permanently increased by energy independence. Freeport, in time, becomes one of the most energy efficient communities in Maine, which is a great thing for overall values in town. Just imagine the high wage job creation for all the projects this would generate, from solar electric and water installations to more basic (but equally valuable) insulation and house tightening improvements.

What do you say? Doesn't this seem like the kind of initiative where Freeport could lead Maine?

Conservation, Economic Development, Local Biz


Looking Back on the Case for an Apple Store in Freeport

Posted by Peter Troast

at September 13, 2008

As I write this, folks are camped out awaiting today's opening of Maine's first Apple Store at the Maine Mall Sprawl. OK, I knew in May when I wrote 6 Reasons Why Freeport is a Better Location for an Apple Store that the odds for Freeport were on the order of a lottery ticket. Still, to me, Apple remains precisely the type of innovative retailer that Freeport needs and that we hoped the new Freeport Village Station would attract.

The Apple post generated a healthy number of public comments, which you can read here, and lots of private emails that reminded me again of the perception challenges that Freeport faces. (For more on the perception topic, my What the World is Saying about Freeport Maine post is one of the most commented on so far.) Listening to what people had to say, three key themes came through:

1. Freeport is only for recreational, tourist shopping, not considered purchases like a computer. "Tourists aren't going to buy a computer while on vacation."

I don't know the data, though I'm sure it's true that a substantial amount of Freeport's traffic is the requisite L.L. Bean drive by for every out of state visitor to Maine. Clearly, though, Freeport has its success stories of companies that are not primarily tourist driven, like Thomas Moser Furniture, Brown Goldsmiths and Chilton's. We've got to figure out how to shed the "tourists only" rap.

2. Access and parking in Freeport is perceived to be worse than traditional malls. "In Freeport, it's park a quarter mile away, walk for 15 minutes - often up a steep hill and outside in inclement weather - brave your way across an extremely busy street filled with poor drivers, and battle throngs of tourists who don't know L.L. Bean from their behinds."

This, as we'd say in software development, is a known bug. The new parking garage within Freeport Village Station is part of the solution. But in these comments and in the other streams of information I monitor about Freeport, this is a very real issue. A comprehensive transportation strategy for Freeport (that I wrote about here) has to tackle the perception challenges as well as the infrastructure.

3. Not everyone percieves the sprawl of the Maine Mall negatively. "At the Mall it's park, walk in, buy, walk out."

The ugliness and inconvenience of uncontrolled sprawl will keep some away from traditional mall zones, but it alone isn't enough to steal a share of that traffic to Freeport. This points to how critical it is to forge a highly differentiated positioning strategy (more on that topic here) as this town evolves–a compelling case for Freeport beyond the suckiness of the growing mess of traditional megamall areas.

When the town agreed to support the Freeport Village Station retail development and parking garage with tax increment financing (in full disclosure I supported this TIF), we hoped and expected this project would be a game changer. Just the ticket to attracting a new and exciting category of retail stores like the Apple's of the world. The developer, Berenson Associates, most definitely deserves our patience as they try to bring the project to market in this horrible economy, but it is hard not to be disappointed with the announced tenants so far. (There have been no new announcements, to my knowledge, since Nike, Brooks Brothers, L.L. Bean's Outlet Store, Calvin Klein, Izod, Van Heusen and Geoffrey Bean were unveiled last March. There are 40 total store and restaurant locations in the project.)