May 22, 2013

RSU 18 budget passed by voters Tuesday

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

OAKLAND — Vote totals reported by town clerks show that Regional School District 18’s proposed school budget of $32,281,753 passed handily at polls in the district’s five towns Tuesday.

Voters from Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney approved the budget by 1,027 votes to 589.

Superintendent Gary Smith said he was pleased by the outcome, and called the turnout of 1,616 “pretty good, for a school budget election.”

Last year, it took three tries between June and October before the district was able to get a budget passed, with a loosely affiliated group of residents actively campaigning to reject any budget increases.

One of those residents, Sidney Selectman Kelly Couture, last year provided the voice for an automated phone message that urged Sidney residents to vote the budget down.

This year, she said, she struggled with her decision, but eventually decided to vote in favor of the budget, despite some reservations.

The deciding factor for her vote, she said, was that she felt Smith had done a good job of listening to people on all sides of the debate, and had crafted a budget that made the right decisions.

"It stings those who don't want any increase at all, and it stings the school board members that want more funding," she said. "It's a compromise. I can't really complain about that."

This year's budget is about $309,000, or 1 percent greater than last year's budget of $31,972,592.

Smith said the district cut spending, but the budget anticipates a cost shift for teacher retirement funding from the state to local school districts, as has been proposed by Gov. Paul LePage.

If LePage's proposal is approved by the Legislature in June, it will result in a $425,000 increase to the district.

Before the vote totals, Smith said he felt many votes against the budget were attributable to concerns about a dramatic curriculum shift to Mass Customized Learning, a new education system.

Couture said she felt parents concerned about the system were voting the budget down because of sheer frustration.

"On one side, I hate to see the budget fail because of a curriculum issue, but on the other side, I've heard the parents and their concerns are falling on deaf ears," she said.

In Sidney, after voters left the polling booths, a small group of parents asked them to sign a petition opposing the learning system.

The parents declined to comment on how they had voted on the budget.

After the polls closed, but before the votes were tallied, Smith said he was nervous but "cautiously optimistic."

The impact on local taxpayers is greater than the $309,000 increase, because of a loss of state and federal funding, according to Smith.

Smith said state funding to the district is estimated to drop by nearly $1 million this year, which would bring the total amount lost over a four-year period to $4.1 million.

In all, assessments to the five towns will increase by $1,280,000.

However, voters in some towns will not feel the full brunt of the increase this year.

Last year, while the school's budget process dragged on, most of the towns sent out tax bills based on a proposed school budget that was larger than what eventually passed in October.

As a result, the towns of Belgrade, China and Sidney collected more money than was eventually assessed by the school district. This money, which has been held in escrow accounts since last year, will be applied to the current school bill, somewhat softening the impact of the increases on taxpayers in those towns this year.

In Oakland, voters decided at a special meeting to delay the issuance of tax bills so residents would be taxed an accurate amount, according to Oakland Town Manager Peter Nielsen.

Oakland resident Anne Hammond voted against the budget because, she said, it was not flat.

Hammond was one of a group of people who circulated a petition last year seeking flat budgets in both the school and the town.

Hammond said she was opposed to any budget increase, especially ones that included raises for administrators.

In June 2012, voters rejected the district's first proposed budget of $33 million by a vote of 1,209 to 1,171.

In August, a smaller budget of $32.6 million was rejected by a larger margin, 1,031 to 831. At that time, Rome was the only town that voted to pass the budget, while it failed in each of the other four towns.

In October, a flat budget of about $32 million was approved on a vote of 937-335.

Voters also reaffirmed, by a large majority, the districtwide voting process for future school budgets.

Smith said the state requires school district voters to demonstrate their desire to maintain the voting process every three years.

The district has a total of 13,830 registered voters, including 2,464 in Belgrade; 3,069 in China; 4,446 in Oakland; 870 in Rome; and 3,001 in Sidney.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
mhhetling@centralmaine.com

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