ROCKLAND — An overwhelming majority of about 90 voters from six towns passed a $25.4 million regional school budget Tuesday night that cuts more than $2.6 million from the current budget, eliminates programs and lays off 30 educators and staffers.
Residents of the Regional School Unit 13 member towns must still pass the budget at the local polls on June 8 for it to become final.
Despite the cuts approved Tuesday night, the $25,406,758 budget for RSU 13 includes an overall 3 percent tax hike for the member towns of Rockland, Cushing, Owls Head, Saint George, Thomaston and South Thomaston.
Before the budget was approved, however, several unsuccessful attempts were made to further reduce spending in an effort to avoid any tax hike.
Ted Cowan of Rockland proposed several amendments to cut budget categories in his efforts to prevent a tax increase.
School board member Brian Messing of Rockland explained to Cowan that even if his amendments passed, Rockland might still have a tax hike because of the complicated state school funding formulas. Other towns, in turn, might pay less in taxes, Messing said.
Cowan argued that it did not matter if everyone got the same savings, but that the district should keep to a no-taxes-raised budget overall.
Board member Loren Andrews of Cushing asked voters to turn down Cowan’s amendments, stating, “We’ve already cut the budget by almost 10 percent. A lot of teachers have lost jobs, and a lot of students have lost programs.”
Superintendent Judy Lucarelli said if voters chose to slash the salary budgets by 3 percent more, it would be the equivalent of losing 7.5 more teacher jobs.
Cowan’s amendments were only supported by a handful of voters and were handily defeated.
The single change that was made Tuesday night to the school board’s proposed budget was a $5,000 increase in funding for the student activity and athletics category. This money is intended to partially fund cheerleading programs.
Doug Curtis Jr. of Rockland proposed adding $10,000 back into the district’s budget for the cheerleaders, who otherwise would have to raise the money privately to continue the sport. He called the program at Rockland District High School one of the most successful sports at the school. Curtis Jr. argued that the increase would cost about $2 per person. After a paper ballot vote, the motion failed. But Andrea Curtis, the cheering coach at Rockland District Middle School, proposed another amendment to give the cheerleaders $5,000, and that passed by a 48-to-40 hand vote.
The $5,000 is not guaranteed to go toward cheering, as the residents do not have line-item budget approval rights, but the money will go toward financing the “Other Instruction” category, which includes student activities and sports, according to Lucarelli.
“We can’t always ask academics to take the brunt of all the cuts,” said the board’s vice chair Jamie Doubleday after the vote. “Academics is always the low hanging fruit here, and sports always seems to bring out the people. If we were talking about football this room would be packed.”
“I don’t think it’s this or that,” Andrea Curtis said after the meeting. “You’re talking about the same kids.”
Andrea Curtis said the $5,000 will partially fund the program, but that it means children will not have to raise as much for their sport.
In the end, area residents passed the budget during Tuesday’s nearly three-hour meeting that represents a 9.3 percent drop in this school year’s budget. It includes 30 layoffs, fewer hours for other district staff members, transfers of teachers and elimination of some extracurricular activities.
As it will be presented to voters on June 8, the budget requires each RSU 13 member town to raise the following amounts for education:
— Cushing: $1,958,910
— Owls Head: $1,804.419.91
— Rockland: $5,518,275
— South Thomaston: $2,811,979.64
— St. George: $1,931,020.24
— Thomaston: $2,093,460
These figures include only education expenses, not costs for extracurricular activities, special education or transportation. The assessments are based on town valuations and student enrollments from each community.
After the meeting, Lucarelli said she thought it went well.
“The citizens who were present had a thorough conversation,” she said. “They supported the budget almost completely — but this is only step one.”
To become final, the budget will have to be approved at the polls on June 8.