FARMINGTON — Divisions that have animated the last two RSU 9 budget cycles were on display again at Wednesday night’s preliminary vote, as district residents wrestled over a proposed 3.5 percent budget increase.

In a meeting that ran more than two hours, RSU 9 residents debated many of the 18 budget articles before voting to approve the district’s $33.9 million budget proposal.

Residents packed into Mt. Blue High School’s Bjorn Auditorium for their first opportunity to weigh in on the district’s $33.9 million budget proposal. Residents who filed in before the vote found themselves accompanied by the buoyant sounds of the Franklin County Fiddlers, a student string group led by RSU 9 instructor Steve Muise.

In opening remarks, Superintendent Thomas Ward urged the crowd to keep in mind the message of a student-designed motivational poster hanging above the auditorium doors: “We’re all in this together.”

“I’d like people to keep that in mind tonight and through the budget process,” Ward said. “We all want the same for our kids. We all want the same for our communities.”

Ward’s remarks came against the backdrop of two years of contentious budget votes, in which RSU 9 residents approved the board’s initial budget proposal, only to strike those budgets down at each of the annual budget referendums. Last year’s final $32.75 million budget passed by only a 37-vote margin.

In an opening salvo, the first speaker to stand proposed keeping the first budget article, funding for district instruction, at last year’s funding level instead of raising it by a proposed 1.36 percent. After that amendment failed on a voice vote, another resident proposed halving the increase. Ultimately the crowd approved the district’s request of $10,340,161.

The articles that received the most conversation also involved the highest requested percent increases. The district requested an additional $565,523, or 12.19 percent increase, for special services funding and $217,804, or 9.85 increase, for student and staff support.

Most of the special services increase would go toward 17 additional educational technicians. Of those 17 positions, 14 were assigned to students who moved into the district this year, said Cynthia Bernstein, assistant director for special education for the district. Increases in student and staff support will allow the district to hire three additional social workers.

One resident, an educational technician in an RSU 9 school, read aloud from a prepared statement, saying she believed that voters had more in common than initial appearances would imply. She pointed out that special education services are legally mandated by federal law and a lawsuit would cost the district more than funding the additional positions.

“It’s our legal responsibility. It’s our ethical responsibility to these students. We are out of compliance when those positions have been left empty,” she argued.

Voters opposed to the special services and support increases asked for proof that those services were necessary and effective. Many budget opponents struggled with the notion of expanding the role of schools. Residents also debated the need for mental health services in the school and the best method for paying for such services.

‘No’ voters, many of whom arrived in a block, began to leave the auditorium as it became clear that they were outnumbered at the meeting. Their objections, however, may serve as a harbinger for the next fight when the budget goes to the 10 district towns in June for final approval.

Kate McCormick — 861-9218

[email protected]

Twitter: @KateRMcCormick