May 25, 2018
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RSU 19 superintendent won’t rule out a third vote on loan for school district

By Alex Barber, BDN Staff

NEWPORT, Maine — The day after a loan proposal was shot down by voters for a second time, Regional School Unit 19 Superintendent Gregory Potter said he won’t rule out a third trip to the polls for residents of member towns.

“I do think we’ll be making some other kind of attempt [to bring a loan back to voters for a third time]. Exactly what that will look like and when has not been determined,” Potter said Wednesday.

In the meantime, the superintendent said it’s back to square one.

“We need to get the budget and finance committee together and talk about possible options,” Potter said. “I’m in the process of formulating additional recommendations, but nothing’s been established yet.”

On Tuesday, voters in eight member towns — Corinna, Dixmont, Etna, Hartland, Newport, Palmyra, Plymouth and St. Albans — rejected by fewer than 200 votes a $2.9 million loan request that would have allowed the school district to get through the remainder of the school year.

Because of 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. Potter, who started work on July 2, immediately instituted a spending freeze and asked for an audit.

A $3.6 million loan request was denied by voters late last year. On Nov. 6, the referendum vote was denied 3,853 to 3,500. The next day, Potter cut $750,000 from the district’s budget.

The finance and budget committee will meet on Jan. 29. Potter said there are options he is considering.

“We’re working on a few scenarios,” he said. “We’re discussing with folks who thought splitting the debt into smaller chunks [would be a better plan]. That way, you’re dealing with the [$1.5 million revenue anticipation note] in one article. That’s one of a lot of ideas that have been discussed.”

Carrying a negative balance forward to the next school year, something auditors have scolded the district for doing in the past, is also a reluctant option, said Potter.

“The debt will not go away until you deal with it,” said the superintendent. “We’ve said a number of times, if we can’t take care of that [revenue anticipation note], and it’s defaulted, that becomes a debt that could be assessed out by the courts.”

He added that it’s not safe to assume that the same $2.9 million figure will be brought back to voters. It takes about 45 days to bring another vote to the public, he said.

People expressed several reasons for voting down the loan on Tuesday’s ballot.

Hiram Weymouth, vice chairman of the St. Albans Board of Selectmen, said residents just can’t afford more taxes.

“The real fact is that money is extremely tight right now,” said Weymouth. “You see it in the request for heating assistance and everything else. People just don’t have extra dollars.”

Weymouth said in the past two years as a selectman, the town of St. Albans has foreclosed on about half a dozen properties because of people not being able to pay their property taxes.

St. Albans Board of Selectmen Chairman Jason Gould said he also voted no.

“Nobody takes joy in [voting the loan down],” said Gould. “I don’t take joy in the fact that the school is in trouble. I went to that school. At the same time, people are just holding on to what they’ve got and they just can’t afford it anymore.”

Neal Strong of Palmyra said he voted down the loan because of principle.

“If I go do something stupid financially, I have to correct that by cutting back and staying within my budget,” said Strong. “That’s a fact of life. I don’t run to my employer and say, ‘Well, you need to give me more money.’ I have to live within my budget like every other responsible human being on earth.”

Both Strong and Gould called for the RSU 19 administration and the public to work together to come up with a solution.

“I wish folks in RSU 19 would be more open to suggestions rather than saying ‘no, we’re not going to cut things’ [any more than they have],” said Strong.

It’s the kids that will suffer the most because of the loan failing, said Jennifer Berce, a fifth-grade teacher at Sebasticook Valley Middle School in Newport.

“We’re just going to try to continue to do what we can with what we have available,” said Berce, who teaches math and science. “I still will not be getting my supplies.”

She said it’s important to invest in the education of children in the district.

“We’ll make the necessary cuts at home to make sure the kids in this district have a quality education,” Berce said. “It is our kids’ education. It’s their future. What they need is the support of their townsfolks saying their education is important.”

Berce added that she’s grateful for a number of volunteer organizations that have donated supplies and time to the schools.

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