January 26, 2013

RSU 18 hope is for less rancor, even as divisions over school budget grow

Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney schools see same issues behind last year's back-and-forth budget battle

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

OAKLAND --The forces that clashed last year about school funding at Regional School Unit 18 hope that this year's budget process will be more civil, but their positions may be as far apart as ever.

click image to enlarge

Art Jones, a mechanic at the Regional School District 18 transportation facility, repairs a power steering pump on a district school bus in Oakland on Tuesday.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

click image to enlarge

Art Jones, a mechanic at the Regional School District 18 transportation facility, repairs a power steering pump on a district school bus in Oakland on Tuesday.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Last year, tempers flared and proponents of both viewpoints publicly traded barbs, but high emotions and personal attacks would be a lousy place to start this year's process, Superintendent Gary Smith said.

After two failed attempts to pass budget increases at the polls, the board accepted the flat $31,974,420 budget in October. At the time, members said deferred expenses would have to be made up for this year, while flat-budget advocates vowed to hold the line.

This year, the debate remains the same. The district is trying to maintain its operations in the face of increases to fixed costs and reduced state and federal revenue, while flat-budget advocates say taxpayers are less able than ever to handle a tax hike.

Administrators are gathering figures to present to the school board in March. Once the school board approves a budget, it will be passed on to voters in the district's five towns -- Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney.

At 5:30 p.m. Thursday, the district is hosting a meeting in Messalonskee Middle School at which public officials from the five towns will meet with school representatives to begin a discussion about the budget.

"It will be a good discussion," Superintendent Gary Smith predicted.

Sides hope to avoid polarization

Smith said he hopes to avoid last year's polarization by approaching this budget with an open mind.

"There were a lot of people making statements about, 'the budget absolutely has to go up this year,' or 'the budget absolutely has to stay flat this year.' Those scenarios aren't on my radar," he said.

Smith said he will construct a budget that is responsible "for the times we are in."

Public officials in Belgrade and Sidney were vocal in opposing budget increases last year. Now officials from both towns say they, too, want calmer talks.

"I'm hoping that the tempers that have flared have cooled down," Belgrade Selectman Penny Morell said.

Kelly Couture, selectwoman in Sidney, said she doesn't want to see personal attacks against flat-budget advocates.

"We have to get away from 'you don't care about the students or the teachers' because that is exactly 100 percent not true," she said. "There's no reason for the disrespect."

Couture said she hopes flat-budget advocates will tone down their rhetoric as well.

"I understand if they think we were a little antagonistic and emotional last year," she said. "I hope it goes away this year. I really do."

Sides digging in

While the tenor of the debate may change, Couture and Morell are against a school budget increase, for any reason.

Couture said increased federal payroll taxes and the state's budget crunch have put taxpayers in a worse position than ever.

"We don't have any more money to give them," she said. "I would love to see them cut, but I think a starting point should be no property tax increases."

Morell said the school should reduce, not increase, its budget.

"The school needs to be cooperative with the people who pay the bills," she said.

Meanwhile, the school district continues to struggle. Last year's tax-neutral budget was achieved only by tapping a reserve fund for $1.45 million. Nearly $100,000 in building maintenance projects were deferred and school employees took a voluntary pay cut of $225 each.

This year, a tax-neutral budget would mean that the district would have to find cuts to equal increases in fixed costs, plus the $1.45 million taken from the reserve, plus any further cuts in state and the federal funding.

(Continued on page 2)

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