SEARSPORT, Maine — By slim margins, residents of Regional School Unit 20 voted Monday night to decrease total spending for education by $363,563. The cuts will come from funds earmarked for art teachers, the school resource officer in Belfast and middle school sports and extracurricular activities, according to the voters present.
About 115 people came to the budget meeting in the Searsport District High School cafeteria, many of whom were concerned about increasing property taxes to pay for educational costs in the eight-town school district. Ultimately, the residents present passed a school budget of $33.45 million. The district’s voters will be asked to vote on the proposed budget by ballot on Tuesday, July 30 at their local polling places. RSU 20 is composed of Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Swanville.
“I know the value of education, art, music, sports. Tonight is about finance,” said Jeff Davis of Stockton Springs, who several times instigated amendments to the budget that would reduce spending. “But this is based on the inability of Stockton Springs to pay its current bill.”
The mood in the Searsport school during this budget meeting was very different from one held two months ago in Belfast, when an emotional crowd composed mainly of parents voted to reinstate funding for the art teachers, library ed techs, school secretaries and more. They added close to $1 million to the budget that had been recommended by the district’s board of directors, but those efforts were torpedoed in June when residents of all eight communities overwhelmingly rejected that plan, which would have meant a 17.2 percent increase to local property tax assessments for the towns.
Thanks to additional state subsidies for education and the resignation this summer of the athletic director, when the board of directors revisited the budgetary process after the first effort failed at the polls, the recommended $33.8 million plan would have meant an overall increase of 12.3 percent for tax assessments for the towns.
It was unclear Monday night what the impact of the altered budget would be for each of the towns, but it was clear that many of the voters present had a deep interest in saving money.
“We should be very proud of our region and our town as an arts community,” Dee Reid of Northport, who trained as an artist, said. “I would like to tap our working professionals to volunteer … If there is a burning need for [art classes], the professionals in our community will step forward. Otherwise, we cannot afford this right now.”
Not all cost-saving efforts were passed by voters, who decided against cutting $182,000 for library media ed tech positions, and against a proposed $81,115 cut that would eliminate two school secretary positions. An effort to add $42,000 to the budget to add another school secretary position in Searsport failed by just four votes.
People present also expressed some surprise that the about one fifth of the district’s roughly 2,550 students are classified as special education. Those services – including special education teacher salaries – will cost about $6.3 million next year, which is half of the cost of regular education.
“It seems like a sacred cow. Is there no way, management-wise, that we could not cut the budget just two or three percent? Is this the absolute bottom-dollar best you can do?” one woman asked RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter, who told her that it was.
And not everyone present acted to cut funding for education, including Paul Sheridan of Northport, whose remarks were met with ringing applause.
“I’ve chosen to not have children, but I know we must educate the children well,” he said. “We either pay now or pay later — with interest.”