OAKLAND — Voters who rejected a $33 million Regional School Unit 18 budget will be asked to weigh in on a smaller, leaner budget next week.

Administrators said that the new budget will create future shortfalls, while town leaders in Sidney, one of the districts’ five towns, have called for more drastic cuts.

The new proposed budget, which is $430,171 less than the one narrowly defeated on June 12, was approved last week by the board for the district, which represents Oakland, Sidney, China, Belgrade and Rome.

A range of $250,000 to $750,000 in cuts was considered.

“We’re dealing with the most challenging budget year yet,” Superintendent Gary Smith said.

The $32,599,068 budget represents a 2 percent increase over last year’s budget of $31,974,420. The budget defeated in June was 3.3 percent higher than last year’s.

The impact on the property tax rate of the five towns in the district has not yet been determined.

After a lengthy meeting on Wednesday, the board unanimously approved the smaller budget.

The new budget proposal will be presented to voters at the district budget meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 26, in the Performing Arts Center of Messalonskee High School in Oakland.

In an unusual move, the board decided to leave the meeting’s articles open, which means that voters can change the amounts in each before sending them to the polls.

“It’s very possible that this budget could change at the district budget meeting,” Smith said. “I would not be surprised if this budget was rejected again for the reason that it was cut too much.”

Oakland board member Donna Doucette said that she has seen this happen only once in her 18 years on the board. She said the measure was necessary to ensure that everyone in the divided community has full opportunity to be heard.

“I don’t want anyone to think we’re trying to pull anything over,” said Doucette.

The budget that is approved at the July 26 meeting will go before voters on Tuesday, Aug. 7.

Cause of crisis

Residents have publicly accused school administrators of doing a poor job of planning for the stunted economy than the district’s financial planners guessed.

Smith said that long-term budget planning had accounted for some of the effects of the recession, but that it hadn’t gone far enough.

Initially, the district budget planned for a scenario in which $2.5 million in state and federal revenues were lost, with a recovery coming this year.

The reality is that the district has lost $4.5 million in state and federal revenues.

“That wasn’t on my radar, and that made life not very good,” said Smith.

Meanwhile, a general economic recovery has yet to happen.

“I am in the hopes that a recovery starts soon,” said Smith. “I had been planning that it was going to start this year.”

In a depressed real estate market, the abundance of lakefront property in the five towns is a burden. State funding formulas allocate more money to districts with lower property values; right now, the district’s property values are high relative to the rest of the state. The net impact is a loss of state funding for schools in the district.

In order to reach the current budget, a $1.45 million fund balance was liquidated in a one-time use to prevent further cuts or tax increases. Next year, that option will not be available.

Expenses deferred

The $430,000 in cuts were spread among many areas, with some of them deferring a need to the future. The biggest savings, $95,000, came from building maintenance projects, while another $35,000 came from a bus replacement plan.

“You’ve got to buy buses. You’ve got to keep buildings in good repair, or you’ll have bigger problems,” Smith said.

Smith said that he was hopeful that some cuts to building maintenance could be made up for by applying for state money.

A tuition reimbursement program for teachers, classroom technology replacements, and heating fuel accounts were cut by another $50,000 apiece.

Smith said that the district can take most of the cuts in stride — for the short term.

“Anything on a short-term basis we can probably make do with,” Smith said. “One of those cuts was library books. Can we deal with a one-year cut? In the big picture, we can.”

But failing to fund library books for longer periods of time creates issues, he said.

“In the long term, if that’s a sustained cut,” Smith said. “We’ve got some problems.”

Doucette, who has consistently advocated against cuts, said that she would recommend that voters approve the budget, as is.

“I’m happy. I can live with the cuts that we made,” Doucette said.

Deferring expenses isn’t the same as saving money, she suggested.

“The more we cut this year, the more we’re going to have to put back,” she said. “If we don’t invest our money now, we’re going to wind up spending it on welfare later.”

Sidney board responds

Sidney’s voters need a budget that is smaller than what is proposed, wrote the town’s board of selectmen in a July 12 letter to the district.

“These continue to be tough economic times for all of us,” says the letter. “Many in our community struggle to make ends meet and have not seen an increase in take home pay for several years.”

Board members wrote that the budget should remain unchanged from last year. “A flat-funded budget would provide enough funding to ensure that jobs, classroom sizes, course offerings and extra-curricular and co-curricular activities would see little or no changes,” the letter states.

Speaking to criticisms about teacher and administrative salaries, Smith said that teacher salaries, which range from about $32,000 to about $55,000 a year, are competitive for the region.

“We strive to understand salary scales in our area that are competitive, so that we can hire the best staff,” he said.

Smith noted that his own salary hasn’t gone up in four years. When he was hired in 2009, his salary was listed as $107,000.

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