Will third time be the charm?

RSU 20 budget runs the public meeting gauntlet, exits untouched

Final validation referendum set for Sept. 17
Wed, 09/11/2013 - 7:30am

    BELFAST — RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter opened Tuesday night’s public budget meeting with a plea to the 150 voters in attendance: accept that the 2013-14 budget will result in a property tax increase. 

    “The only way we’re not going to get one is to cut 16 more teachers,” he said, Sept. 10,

    Two previous drafts of the budget were rejected at validation referendums held in June and July. Residents on one side of the debate have been outspoken against proposed staff cuts, while others have decried the 12-17 percent bump in the property tax levy that would have resulted from previous drafts.

    The current budget includes some staff and other budget cuts and would result in an average increase in the municipal tax levy of just over 10 percent.

    Carpenter said the board did its best to deal with what he called an “unfunded mandate” of over a half-million dollars. The current budget would raise the district’s $33.4 million bottom line by just $21,000 from last year. To get there, however, the board had to cut expenses by $578,000 to make up for the loss of state aid.

    “Education doesn’t work that way,” Carpenter said. “I don’t know of any other organization that does, or they’d close their doors.”

    The crowd at Tuesday night’s meeting seemed mostly resigned to the lose-lose prospects of this year’s budget. Though some spoke out against the increased tax burden, the short-changing of local districts by the state and the loss of school programs.

    “To me it couldn’t be clearer that the citizens can’t afford this budget,” said David Marceau of Searsmont. “The district [RSU 20] acts as if it’s the only one in the state that has to deal with this.”

    Marceau said his own income had dropped 40-percent in the last five years while his health insurance costs had risen dramatically. This he contrasted with the cost of personnel and benefits in the school district, which he said represented the biggest problem in the budget.

    Amy Fradel of Belfast disagreed. 

    “The 10-percent increase we are talking about is courtesy of Gov. Paul LePage,” she said, drawing applause from the crowd. “We the property tax payers are being forced to make up the difference in lost state revenue from income taxes.”

    Fradel said she would support this budget, but she rejected the idea of any further cuts.

    David Smith, a retired teacher from Belfast, offered a similar olive branch, thanking the school board for working on a difficult budget.

    “I want to bring this idea up that we should be appreciative of the people who have taken on this job,” he said. “The situation here, they didn’t make it ... We really need to move forward.”

    These comments came in response to the first of the 11 “cost centers” in the budget — a $12.3 million line for Regular Instruction. Voters were asked to weigh in on each of the cost centers. Regular Instruction was the largest and contained most of the proposed cuts. These included:

    • 4.5 teaching positions, 2 support staff and 1.5 library education technicians

    • Reductions in the budgets for food service, maintenance and technology

    • Stipends for leaders of middle school co- and extra-curricular activities

    • Supplies and professional development

    • Reductions in central office administration and school administration

    Several lines that were contested in previous drafts of the budget were restored in the current version, including: 1 art teacher, the school resource officer and 2 library education technicians.

    The town-meeting-style format of the budget meeting allowed for changes to each cost center. But no motions were made to amend any of the amounts.

    Voters on Tuesday approved the $33.4 million bottom line, of which $4.9 million is additional local funds to be raised. The budget is subject to a final validation referendum Sept. 17 in the district’s eight municipalities.

    Numbers of registered voters at the Sept. 10 budget meeting, by town: Belfast (64), Belmont (7), Morrill (~10), Northport (18), Searsmont (14), Searsport (10), Stockton Springs (8), Swanville (3). 

    The RSU 20 draft 2013-14 budget, by cost center, can be viewed here.

    Ethan Andrews can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com