BELFAST, Maine — The second time was the charm for the proposed area school district budget, which was passed this week 716 to 465 by voters from the five member towns.
Residents of Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Searsmont and Swanville previously had rejected a pricier Regional School Unit 71 budget at the polls in June. But the trimmed-down, $25.2 million version was accepted Tuesday by voters in Belfast, Belmont and Searsmont, although Morrill and Swanville residents still registered their disapproval at the polls. RSU 71 officials said that they also anticipate getting about half a million dollars in additional revenue, including a $300,000 increase in state funding.
The district was formed last November after the five communities voted to withdraw together from RSU 20, the then-eight-town district that also included Northport, Searsport and Stockton Springs.
“I am very pleased that the residents of the new RSU 71 support the budget that we put forth, that really emphasizes quality of education,” Caitlin Hills, a school board member from Belfast, said Thursday. “They are supporting us moving our educational system into a direction that will provide a vibrant learning experience for the children in our community.”
Many opposed to the school budget, which will cost the communities $333,000 more for education than they spent last year, said that the increased funding will put a strain on struggling property taxpayers. The school board and Superintendent Paul Knowles had trimmed the proposed budget by reducing the addition to a contingency fund by $225,000 and by making cuts in other areas including maintenance, repairs and instructional supplies. But the board members held firm to their decision to add three new positions in elementary art, high school band and foreign language, even though eliminating the positions would have saved $180,000.
That choice galled some in the district, including outspoken critic Peter Sheff of Morrill, who recently formed a group called Save Our Homes.
“We are discouraged, and we lost the battle to protect more of our homes from the increase in taxes,” he said Thursday regarding the budget. “But we are certainly not done with the struggle. My intention is to attend every single school board meeting. I am going to be encouraging the school board and the superintendent to find cuts of up to $2 million by this time next year.”
Hills said that property taxpayers’ concerns matter to the school board.
“I’m excited in working with our new superintendent in doing a thorough assessment of the needs of our school system, and streamlining where we can, to assure that the taxpayers’ concerns are addressed as well,” she said.