BELFAST, Maine — It is back to the drawing board for the Regional School Unit 71 board of directors, after voters from the five member communities rejected the district’s proposed $25.7 million budget Wednesday at the polls.
Residents of Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Searsmont and Swanville who voted turned it down by a total of 467 votes to 411. Only Belfast residents were in favor of the budget, with a vote of 275 to 166. The proposed budget is the first for the brand-new school district and would have raised the communities’ local appropriation for education by an average of about 9 percent.
“It’s not the end of education as we know it,” David Crabiel, the chairman of the board of directors, said Wednesday. “We’re going to go through it, make sensible cuts and get the tax burden down. I don’t want to go through three or four votes. I want the next one to be approved.”
Crabiel said that while voter turnout was lower than usual for a June election in four of the communities, it was high in Morrill, where 25 percent of registered voters came out to the polls. Those voters turned down the proposed budget by 135 to 27.
At the district budget meeting in mid-June, Morrill Second Selectman Randy Place told the crowd that the budget would put a heavy burden on his community’s 650 property taxpayers. In his town, the local appropriation would increase from $768,201 to $845,745 from the last fiscal year to the next one, equaling a jump of about 10 percent.
“This could be very well the first time in the history of Morrill we cannot meet our school commitment,” Place said at the district budget meeting. “We can’t sustain this kind of budget. We want to, but we can’t.”
Crabiel said the new district’s board members worked hard on the proposed budget and will get back to work on another version on Monday.
“There were a lot of changes outside this board’s control that raised up the cost,” he said. “We’ve seen a shift from state-level funding to local property tax funding, which certainly accounted for some of the increase.”
He said that Superintendent Paul Knowles will start his new position with the district next week, and the school board will meet with him to discuss possible areas for cost-savings.
“There’s a list of areas that we’ve wanted to look at in the coming year anyway, such as maintenance, transportation and class size,” Crabiel said. “We’ll just move a few of them up, make some changes and try again.”