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.

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.

Smith said the early indications are not promising.

“The outlook is not pretty,” he said. “The new normal for budgets is, a 2 or 3 percent increase would be like heaven.”

Morell said that she heard similar concerns last year, but the district found a way to make it work.

“We took a million out of it last year,” Morell said. “We were told by the school that we’d have to make that up this year. We don’t think so. We think we can find more.”

Couture said that she’s not sure where the district should cut.

“Frankly, that’s not our job,” she said. “The school board is elected to represent the taxpayers, and they are supposed to be the experts on where to cut in their budget to get to the goal,” she said.

While selectmen in Belgrade and Sidney oppose school budget increases, officials in the district’s other towns of China, Oakland and Rome expressed concerns about cutting education.

Byron Wrigley, selectman from Oakland, said that he expects to see an increase from the school.

“We’re just hoping they’ll go easy,” he said. Wrigley said he would need to review the final numbers before he made up his mind.

Last year, China residents considered leaving the school district altogether, but decided to stay by a vote of 1,386-790 in November’s election.

Peter Foote, a China selectman, said he thought the town’s board would be supportive of a reasonable increase from the district, which he said “is pretty responsible with their budget.”

“Having a flat budget is never good because you’re actually going backward,” he said.

Kelly Archer, selectwoman from Rome, said she wouldn’t want to speak for the entire board, but her personal opinion is that the school may be forced to seek local funding to make up for losses in federal revenue.

“Sometimes, just to save a few pennies on someone’s taxes, it might not be worth it to cut certain things,” she said.

Forces gathering

Both the school district and the flat-budget advocates are looking for ways to make a bigger impression on the voters who have the power to accept or reject a budget in April.

Last year, the flat-budget advocates erected signs and pooled their money to pay for prerecorded phone messages, known as robo-calls, that encouraged voters to reject school budget increases.

Couture, who provided the voice for some of the phone messages, said flat-budget advocates are simply neighbors talking to neighbors.

“We’re not organized,” she said. “We’re like-minded.”

If the board approves a budget increase, she said, she is prepared to make her case to the public.

Some of those who favored a budget increase last year felt that the increased budgets were defeated by an active minority, while a silent majority of the community that supports education funding failed to show up at the polls.

“At the end of the day, when you look at the number of people who vote or go to the district budget meetings, it’s only a small fraction of the people who could participate,” Smith said.

This year, Smith said, the district will work harder to reach people with a stake in education funding.

“We want to get a wide variety of folks, parents, retired teachers, booster clubs, just get them involved,” he said.

That approach is a shift from last year, when the district seemed less willing to actively court support for its budget.

“I don’t think we did a good enough job of communicating,” Smith said. “We’re going to try to get those folks together and help them understand what a good school system this is and try to garner support from them.”

Morell said that she will be prepared to react if she sees more campaigning on behalf of the school.

“I know I will get the word out to my people.” Morell said. “If they come out strong, we need to come out strong too.”

Couture said that, ultimately, she is comfortable with the fact that residents will have the final say.

“l love a healthy debate.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
[email protected]