ST. ALBANS, Maine — Town managers and board of selectmen members of seven of the eight towns represented in embattled Regional School Unit 19 met on Thursday evening to discuss their frustration and a plan to inform voters of budget problems before the Nov. 6 election.
Due to serious errors in previous budgets — including the fact that member towns were not billed for their obligations to the school district — RSU 19 has a $3.6 million shortfall this year.
On Saturday, residents of Corinna, Dixmont, Etna, Hartland, Newport, Palmyra, Plymouth and St. Albans voted 163-68 to place the district’s proposed $3.6 million loan on the ballot.
Fifteen representatives from seven towns plus Somerset County Commissioner Robin Frost participated in a two-hour workshop in St. Albans’ town hall. Only the town of Plymouth was not represented.
The representatives agree that placing a full-page advertisement in a regional weekly newspaper was the best way to tell the public how the $3.6 million loan would affect residents.
“We, as municipalities, owe the voters the knowledge to know what’s going to happen to them financially on an individual basis,” said Newport Town Manager James Ricker.
The towns will research figures on how much RSU 19’s budget has risen over the past three years compared to that of each town in the same time frame. The representatives agree to let the numbers do the talking.
“[RSU 19 is] going to do what they have to do on that side of things. We need to be out front on this thing and we need to battle back,” said Jason Gould, chairman of St. Albans’ Board of Selectmen. “We can’t just hope with our fingers crossed. They’ve stacked the deck against us before. They’ll do it again.”
“We need to put in there what the taxes are going to be to let the other side be known,” said Newport Board of Selectmen Chairman Tom Breitweg. “We can’t let them walk all over us.”
Several of the representatives expressed concern about the lack of communication between the RSU 19 board members and the towns they represent. Ricker said he emailed all four of Newport’s board members in the past few months and has only heard back from one.
“It seems to be that our school board members are not representing us as a town, but representing the school itself,” said Gould.
Ricker said people are being told that if the loan doesn’t pass, popular programs will be cut.
“We were told last night at our meeting from a lady who was at the school board meeting [on Tuesday] that the first thing they’re going to say is football, basketball and music is immediately going to go [if the loan isn’t approved],” said Ricker. “You know what that’s going to do to the parents and grandparents of the district. It’s a scare tactic.”
RSU 19 Superintendent Greg Potter has said that if the loan isn’t approved on Nov. 6, more cuts will happen. Those cuts are on top of nearly $800,000 that has already been cut from the budget. The district will resubmit a loan to be voted on if the first loan isn’t passed.
Ricker emphasized that the towns just want to present the facts to the voters.
“This isn’t about not supporting school systems and teachers and children and sports. This is not about this,” said Ricker. “This is about your failed administration not being held accountable. That’s what we need to say.”
Ricker went on to say that if he made such a huge accounting mistake, the consequences would be harsh.
“If I lost $1 million for the town of Newport, you’d probably have to come visit me at Penobscot County Jail,” he said.