May 20, 2018
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Voters pass $32.7M RSU 20 budget, but not without discontent

Abigail Curtis | BDN
Abigail Curtis | BDN
RSU 20 residents signify their approval for a budget article they voted on Thursday night at the Belfast Area High School gymnasium. It took voters just under two hours to approve the next fiscal year's $32.7 million budget.
By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

BELFAST, Maine — A crowd of more than 50 people passed the $32.7 million budget for RSU 20 Thursday night, but not without registering its dissatisfaction with aspects of the process as well as the proposed budget.

The district had a shortfall of $2.6 million for the 2011-12 fiscal year when the board of directors began working on the budget. This was in part due to the expected loss of $921,000 in federal stimulus money, according to Superintendent Bruce Mailloux. Additionally, property valuations in some of the district’s nine towns increased “dramatically,” he said, which led to more money to be raised locally in taxes for schools.

RSU 20 serves students from Belfast, Belmont, Frankfort, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Swanville.

The passed budget shows a 1.6 percent increase over the $32.3 million that voters allowed for the current fiscal year that will end on June 30.

After listening to one voter Thursday night say that he had a fixed income and every penny he must pay in school taxes counted, an impassioned Paul Sheridan of Northport got up to speak his mind.

“I too live on a pension. I’m retired. However, this is such a small percentage of the money we pay every day,” he said. “We are fighting three insane wars. I am tax and spend. I believe in taxing fairly, and spending wisely. This is a rich country, goddammit. We have the money to educate our youth. If we don’t, we may jail our youth. Raise the goddamn taxes and educate our children.”

Applause followed his words from many in the crowd.

In an attempt to lower costs, the proposed budget reduced funding for school field trips, sports coaching stipends and sports and school equipment. It also eliminated 10 positions.

After taking into consideration retirement and job shuffling, just two people would have lost their jobs, including a half-time guidance counseling post at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast, Mailloux said in an interview Thursday afternoon.

But some voters Thursday night challenged the loss of the guidance position, which would have left one full-time guidance counselor at the middle school.

Middle school parent Sandy Wallace of Northport said she hoped the residents present would reinstate the $29,000 saved by cutting the position.

“We’re not talking about ‘What should I do about this boy?’” she argued. “We’re talking about suicide and drug abuse.”

Counselor Leslie Stein, whose position was on the chopping block, stood up to defend her job and her students.

“Every week I deal with very serious issues and a lot of these kids don’t talk to anybody,” she said. “I really feel that they would be left in the dust.”

Voters approved adding $29,000 to the budget line for student and staff support. They also approved cutting the same amount of money from the budget line for system administration, which includes the superintendent’s office, the business office and the board of directors.

Mailloux said the district would have no choice but to make the amended budget work.

Voter Michael Sirota of Searsmont said he felt the school budget was particularly unjust to his town. Because of an increase in property values in Searsmont, its school taxation level jumped 20 percent over last year, from $1.3 million to $1.6 million.

Searsmont residents will pay $345,000 more in taxes for schools in the new fiscal year, which is more than half of the district’s total local taxation increase of $676,000.

“I think that the formula used affected Searsmont in an unfair way,” Sirota said. “It’s a matter of what I felt was equality.”

Voters will have another chance to present their positions on the budget on Tuesday, June 21, when it must be validated by ballot referendum in each of the nine RSU 20 member towns.

Mailloux said voter turnout was so low last year that the district spent almost $5 per vote.

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