Belfast-area school budget heads back to the drawing board

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff
Posted June 12, 2013, at 4:52 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — It’s back to the budgetary drawing board for Regional School District 20. The district’s eight towns remain in an uneasy educational alliance after low turnout Tuesday killed efforts of six towns — Belfast, Belmont, Searsmont, Northport, Swanville and Morrill — to withdraw from the district.

Voters also decided by a substantial margin not to validate the proposed $34.3 million budget, with total numbers from those six towns, plus Stockton Springs and Searsport, showing that the budget failed by 1,894-1,248.

RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter said Wednesday morning that the district’s board of directors would have to start over to draft a new budget which voters will vote on later this summer.

“We have no clear direction from the vote, other than it didn’t pass,” Carpenter said.

Residents who attended an emotional school budget meeting two weeks ago reinstated $856,000 that the school board had previously cut from the budget. With the reinstated funds, it would have meant a 17.2 percent increase to local property tax assessments for the eight towns.

“Apparently voters didn’t like what the people at the budget meeting had requested,” Carpenter said.

He believes that proponents of withdrawal had intentionally added more money to the school budget at that meeting, so that more people would be likely to vote this week.

“There had to be an alternate motive,” he said.

The RSU 20 directors will meet for a regularly scheduled meeting Thursday, then the finance committee will start reworking the budget, according to Director Stephanie Wade of Belfast.

Because finance committee chairman Gerald Reid of Northport is not seeking reappointment to the school board, the directors will have to find a new person to fill that position, she said.

The board members still do not know what kind of money may be coming from the state government, as their budget is somewhat dependent on the state’s budget.

“If we get more money from Augusta, it will help us fill in some of the gaps,” Wade said.

Carpenter said that local school districts are “getting no help” from Augusta.

“We’re still waiting on the state to see what they’re going to do,” he said. “All this shifting of funding down to the local [level] is not doing us any favors. It’s going to impact the property tax even more.”

The state government might take back some of the responsibility for teacher pensions, said Wade, that Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget had shifted to local school districts. She said she was optimistic that RSU 20 might be able to “stay within the footprint” of the previously proposed budget and maintain some of the teaching and support positions that had been eliminated by the board of directors.

Another point of contention is the unfunded mandate for testing and standards that is being passed to local school districts. For RSU 20, about $120,000 has been set aside for technology to support new assessment tests — too much money, according to Wade.

“Why invest all this money in technology that hasn’t been proven?” she asked. “This testing culture is also a way of almost undermining a teacher’s authority. We’re saying we don’t trust what teachers say.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/06/12/news/midcoast/belfast-area-school-budget-heads-back-to-the-drawing-board/ printed on April 16, 2014