Residents gear up to vote on controversial RSU 20 school budget

Posted May 29, 2013, at 6:13 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — Residents in embattled Regional School Unit 20 will have a chance Thursday evening to vote on a controversial budget for the next school year that would make major cuts and still cause local property taxes to rise significantly.

Some local education activists believe that the 7 p.m. budget meeting at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast will be an opportunity to re-institute some funding for RSU 20 students for the upcoming year and to “stand strong against further cuts,” according to flyers that were being handed out Wednesday afternoon outside the Belfast Co-op.

One of the people handing out information was Stephanie Wade, an RSU 20 director from Belfast.

“Investing in education is investing in the economy,” she said.

But others who live in the eight-town school district, which includes Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Swanville, are concerned about the fact that the proposed budget will cause an approximate 13 percent increase in local property tax assessments for schools. Those taxpayers will be expected to pay about $22 million for schools in the next fiscal year, up from about $19 million in locally generated revenue this year.

The school district is facing a budget shortfall of $3.8 million, part of which is caused by the town of Frankfort’s decision to withdraw from RSU 20 and take its state subsidies north to SAD 22.

Other problems include increased costs for insurance and a sharp hike for teacher and support staff salaries. The RSU 20 directors voted late last month to recommend to the district’s residents a $33.48 million budget for the next school year. That sum included cuts totaling $1.7 million.

Some of the cuts, which include three and a half art teaching positions districtwide, could have a very detrimental effect on education, some residents worry. A change.org petition which called to save the art positions garnered 527 signatures, including former students and concerned community members.

One former student, Abigail Norman of Camden, wrote that she attended Searsport District High School and the opportunities provided to her through music and art programs propelled her into a successful career.

“Not only have I worked as a professional actor, but I also use those liberal arts skills every day at my job,” she wrote on the petition. “So called ‘elective’ courses ought to be considered a fundamental part of every student’s education.”

But some residents said at the late-April meeting that large property tax increases will be hard to bear.

“People can’t afford those assessments,” Alexander Liversedge of Stockton Springs told the board members at that time.

After the Thursday budget meeting, the district’s voters will go to their municipal polls on Tuesday, June 11 to approve the budget.

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