OAKLAND — The camps that have been sharply divided over proposed increases in the Regional School Unit 18 budget found something to agree on during a first-of-its-kind meeting Tuesday night: The more people who get involved with the district’s budget process, the better.

Superintendent Gary Smith told a gathering of what he called the “Friends of RSU 18” that the outlook for the upcoming year once again looks bleak, with roughly $600,000 in added costs and reduced support possible from the state.

He reiterated that he is attempting to craft a budget that balances the needs of the district’s students and the burden on taxpayers in the district’s towns of Belgrade, China, Oakland, Sidney and Rome.
“Sometimes I wonder if I can do all that at the same time,” he said. 

The 20 attendees included traditional budget-increase supporters, such as parent-teacher organization members and district staff, as well as traditional opponents, such as selectmen from Sidney and Belgrade.

The meeting, held at Messalonskee Middle School, was part of a larger effort on the part of the district to garner support for its budget from the public.

Last year, taxpayers twice rejected budgets that contained increases.

A loosely affiliated group of people opposed to the budget, led in part by selectmen in Belgrade and Sidney, actively campaigned against the budget increases, in part by taking the unprecedented step of purchasing automated “robocalls” that delivered prerecorded messages to area residents.

That budget process dragged on until October, when the board reluctantly agreed to a flat budget of $31,974,420.

Smith said at the time that the drawn-out process was a distraction from the district’s primary mission of educating students.

Tuesday night, meeting participants discussed how to get more people involved in the budget process, and how to better communicate complex budget information to them in an understandable way.

Smith said participation from the roughly 14,000 voters in the district has been disappointing, with as few as 449 voters approving the budget in 2009.

Last year’s June vote had the highest turnout in recent years, with 2,380 participants. Smith said he would like to see at least 10 percent of the voters participate this year, with 20 percent being “something to celebrate.”

School board member Kerri Olivier said the traditional process of presenting a massive packet of numbers to community members at a single meeting is not effective.

“You cannot comprehend an 80-page document in one meeting,” she said.

She said it would be better to get more people involved, earlier.

“I don’t want to wait until the last minute,” she said. “That was our problem last year.”

Administrators and town leaders agreed that one good way to affect the process and learn about the budget is to attend district budget workshops, which are held on March 18, 19 and 20. At that point, the preliminary budget has not yet been formulated, and so it is more practical to implement suggested changes, Olivier said.

The budget will also be the subject of board meetings and a series of public hearings in April and May, with a proposed budget coming before voters for approval on May 21.

The group discussed how to improve communication between the district and the community with mass emails and other new methods.

Smith said the district is adding a feature on the district’s website that will collect opinions from residents and staff about the budget, and is also developing a summary document that will make the intricacies of the budget more understandable to those new to the process.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
mhhetling@centralmaine.com