NEWPORT, Maine — Residents of eight towns that comprise Regional School Unit 19 voted 161-47 to allow a $2.9 million loan request to be placed on a referendum ballot for next Tuesday.
It will be the second loan request that RSU 19 has placed on the ballot. A $3.6 million request was shot down by voters by a narrow margin in November. The next day, the district cut $750,000 from the budget.
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 school year. New Superintendent Gregory Potter, who started work on July 2, immediately instituted a spending freeze and asked for an audit.
No “Plan B” is on the table if the loan is denied a second time. Instead, the district would again ask voters to approve the same amount on another loan request, said Potter during Tuesday night’s meeting at Nokomis Regional High School.
Residents of Corinna, Dixmont, Etna, Hartland, Newport, Palmyra, Plymouth and St. Albans will be able to vote on the loan request from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 15.
On Nov. 6, the referendum vote was denied 3,853 to 3,500.
“I feel positive of the result tonight,” Potter said after the meeting. “Obviously the group that was assembled was favorable of getting it to the ballot next week. It’s a pretty strong showing of support. I’m very pleased to see that.”
The loan is broken up into two parts. Six towns would be responsible for a $1.5 million loan. Dixmont and Etna are excluded from that payment. All eight towns would be responsible for the $1.4 million loan. Both would be 10-year loans which Jerry Nault, RSU 19’s business manager, said he figured at 3.5 percent interest.
Audience members spent nearly two hours asking questions and discussing issues. Many of the comments were critical of the loan.
“I’ve heard what it costs, where we’re going to get it and why we need it, but I haven’t heard what we can afford,” said Hiram Weymouth, a selectman for St. Albans. “People in this area are gone. They’ve disappeared. Why is that? Because they were taxed right out of their property. And here we go again.”
Plymouth resident Neal Strong was also critical of the loan.
“We have a lot of folks in this audience who say, ‘It’s for the kids, it’s for the kids.’ Gosh, I’m getting tired of hearing that,” said Strong. “There comes a point when people in the community can’t afford anymore. We’re at that point, folks. I appreciate [the district] trying to cut things down, but you have to do more.”
Potter said more cuts would be devastating in keeping RSU 19 competitive with other school districts.
With more cuts, the district would “put the pupil cost below the state minimum,” said Potter.
RSU 19 has a per-pupil-cost that is $2,000 below the state average, he said. By cutting down any further, the district would not be eligible for all the money it could get from the state.
“There is nowhere to go. We’ve run out of options,” said Nault, adding that only 20 percent of the district budget is even capable of being cut.
Somerset County Commissioner Robin Frost of Palmyra said he sent audit reports dating back to 2004 to the attorney general’s office for review.
Frost said he is asking the state for a budget freeze, a forensic audit report on RSU 19 and an injunction on next week’s vote.