School budgets sail through despite low voter turnout

Posted June 15, 2011, at 7:05 p.m.
Last modified June 15, 2011, at 7:33 p.m.

PITTSFIELD, Maine — Voters approved school budgets in Pittsfield- and Newport-area schools Tuesday by wide margins despite extremely low turnouts in both districts.

SAD 53, which includes Pittsfield, Burnham and Detroit, saw its 2011-12 budget proposal of $9,873,261 passed by a districtwide vote of 73-19 with all towns in favor. The breakdown was Detroit, 13-3; Burhnam, 18-2; and Pittsfield, 42-14.

The district’s budget for next year is about $29,000 lower than the current year, but the amount to be raised from local property taxes will jump by about $341,000 in order to attract the maximum amount of state aid for education. Superintendent Michael Gallagher said the budget had strong support throughout the process but that he hadn’t been sure whether that would continue at the polls on Tuesday.

“There was a very low turnout, which I guess was probably expected given the fact there weren’t any additional referendum items on the docket,” he said. “Still, it was obviously a favorable vote by a long shot.”

In neighboring RSU 19, which covers eight towns, the school budget proposal of $22,599,000, a $900,000 increase over the current year, passed by a tally of 178-88. The budget passed in every town with the exception of Palmyra, where the vote was tied. The breakdown was Corinna, 35-15; Dixmont, 25-4; Etna, 10-9; Hartland, 29-18; Newport, 33-12; Palmyra, 11-11; Plymouth, 10-9; and St. Albans, 25-10.

RSU 19 Superintendent William Braun said his district managed to preserve current programs and staff in the budget proposal, which he said was a vast departure from last year, when 19 positions were cut and the district closed Palmyra Consolidated School. Hefty increases in the cost of energy and workers’ compensation insurance comprised most of the increase in the 2011-12 spending plan. The district also has budgeted more than $300,000 for maintenance, almost twice what was spent in the current year.

All but three of the towns in RSU 19 saw their contributions to the budget go down. The town of Plymouth will pay $55,700 more than the current year for a total of more than $500,000. Etna, whose contribution is about $440,000, will see its contribution go up by about $40,000. Dixmont’s share will increase by $15,500 to around $490,000. Each town’s contribution is affected by its valuation, said Braun.

“The budget isn’t what everyone wants it to be, but it’s enough to maintain our staff and programming,” said Braun.

 

With such low turnout, Braun questioned whether the process of approving school budgets in Maine is “double kill.” Because of a new process instituted in recent years by the Department of Education, most towns vote on their school budget at their annual town meeting, at a district budget meeting and then a referendum.

“This whole validation process is kind of a joke,” said Braun. “All the voters did Tuesday was validate what happened at the public meeting. I don’t see any value in that. I’m just miffed by the process.”

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