OAKLAND — Voters approved a revised budget proposal for RSU 18 during town meeting-style debate Thursday, but it wasn’t easy, and it isn’t over.

On Aug. 7, residents from the district’s five towns — Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney — will decide on the revised $32.6 million budget with a referendum vote.

More than 300 voters attended Thursday’s meeting at Messalonskee High School, which started 25 minutes late when town registrars were overwhelmed by the number of people waiting at the front door.

More than three hours later, voters approved 17 articles as written.

The tone of the meeting was set early. During a discussion on the first article — a $15 million request to fund regular instruction — several district voters used the item as a means to comment on the school budget as a whole.

Sidney resident Tim Russell said personal budgets in the district are stretched too thin to bear any increases in taxes. Oakland resident Linda Keniston said the proposed budget had already been cut too much to provide quality education and she urged voters to reject further cuts.

For the next 30 minutes, about 15 people echoed similar sentiments from both sides of the issue. Eventually, however, moderator Bob Nutting called for a vote and the article was passed.

For the next two hours, the meeting followed the same pattern. Individual residents amended nearly every article downward to the previous year’s amount, the group discussed it at length along increasingly familiar lines, then an overwhelming majority shot it down.

One by one, at a stubborn pace, voters approved the articles as written.

At one point, Sidney Selectman Kelly Couture spoke in favor of flat funding, saying the community as a whole is hurting from higher taxes, and flat funding would not significantly affect the quality of education from one year to the next. School board member Len LeGrand of Rome said budget increases for each item translate to single-digit tax increases for the average homeowner, but, collectively, those small amounts are crucial to educational programs.

The meeting began with a 10-minute slide presentation by Superintendent Gary Smith, who explained the budget process and provided context for the numbers.

Smith said the 4-year-old district was born during a financial crisis and the difficulty continues. This year, however, the district will not receive federal stimulus dollars, compounding the revenue crunch.

Also, as valuations in other areas have dropped, the high number of lakefront properties within the district has caused a net increase in assessed value by 24 percent, Smith said. As values go up, state support goes down.

In June, voters from rejected a proposed $33 million budget, which would have been an increase of 2 percent from the previous year. In response, school officials trimmed the proposal by $430,000, but town officials in Belgrade and Sidney weren’t satisfied. In both towns, selectmen signed letters stating the school board hadn’t cut enough, adding that voters would likely support a budget of about $32 million, the same as last year.

Under the proposed budget, the district’s employees will receive a 2 percent raise this year.

The letter from Belgrade selectmen contends the $32.6 million budget will increase Belgrade taxes by $120 per $100,000 of property valuation. According to district figures, the budget approved by the school board would raise taxes by $35 in Belgrade, $39 in China, $57 in Oakland and $22 in Sidney, per $100,000 of valuation. Taxes in Rome would decrease by $23 per $100,000 because of a change in property valuations.

Majorities of voters in Oakland and Sidney rejected the first budget in June, the other towns passed it, but it failed by a total vote of 1,209–1,171.

Meanwhile, the town of Oakland has scheduled a special town meeting for 5:45 p.m. at the same location to change the tax due date from Aug. 17 to Sept. 14 in order to accommodate the delay in the school budget’s approval.

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