OAKLAND — The day after voters in the Regional School Unit 18 school district rejected a proposed $32.6 million budget, 1,031-831, district administrators said they have heard the concerns of opponents of the budget.

Meanwhile, tax bills in some towns have gone out, even though they don’t accurately reflect what the school bill will be.

The budget was the second one rejected by the voters of China, Belgrade, Rome, Sidney, and Oakland during districtwide referendums. The first one, for $33 million, lost by just 38 votes on June 12.

Sidney Selectwoman Kelly Couture was active in the campaign against the school budget. She said that the budget failed because the district has failed to understand the message of concerned taxpayers who have “drawn a line in the sand” against tax increases.

“Do without a few things this year, and see what happens next year. Do without,” Couture said.

Couture had advice for Gary Smith, the superintendent of the Oakland-based school district, who has been guiding the district through the budget process over the last several months.

“He needs to stand up and say, ‘Listen voters, I hear you. We’re going to do the best we can. … We’re going to take you seriously this time,'” she said.

Smith had a message of his own.

“I have not gotten direction from the board, but it’s pretty clear what our charge is, which is to make a flat budget work,” Smith said.

Smith said that he had spoken to a couple of board members who drew the same conclusion. Last year, the budget was $31,974,420, which would mean that another $600,000 would have to be cut from the budget that was rejected Tuesday.

Smith said that he felt the second referendum was definitive.

“Losing by 38 votes (in June) was close, … but last night, it became very clear that there was a bigger message we weren’t hearing,” Smith said.

Further cuts

Smith said that it’s too early to have details on what will be cut from the budget.

“Ten or more positions have already been cut. Will there be more? Chances are,” Smith said.

Couture said she would support a flat budget.

“That’s what I think would pass,” she said.

Board members said they would have to draft a new budget but weren’t sure how much to cut.

Member Len LeGrand called the outcome of the vote disappointing.

“That was a tight budget,” he said. “I believe it was in the best interests of both the students and the taxpayers. The voters disagree. So now the board will be meeting to come up with another responsible budget.”

Board Chairwoman Laura Tracy said the rejections put the board in a difficult position.

“Whatever we do, people will be unhappy,” Tracy said. “We have to figure out how to walk that narrow line. Last year, the first thing we heard was, ‘Why isn’t the school taking the kids to the nursing home to sing?’ It’s because we don’t have the money for the buses. It takes resources to do that.”

However, Couture, who was recognized recently by the Alfond Youth Center for her service to youth, said opposing the budget is not the same as opposing education or children.

“The voters are not anti-education. That is extremely far from the truth,” Couture said. “We are pro-kids, pro-teachers. We are anti-wasting our money.”

Oakland resident Anne Hammond said she thinks waste in the school budget needs to be addressed.

“We need a great education for our children,” Hammond said, “but throwing money at the problem does not make for a great education.”

Next steps

School administrators had a work session Wednesday to begin planning the district’s next steps.

Smith said the board, which meets again next Wednesday, will try to draft a new proposed budget as quickly as possible, but that it will take time.

The first time, the budget process took two months. Smith said that the work volume and the mandated posting requirements slow the process.

“Probably a good three to four weeks is the fastest you could turn something like this around,” Smith said.

Tracy said she would be surprised if the process could be done in four weeks, adding that she expected it to take another two months.

In the meantime, the district’s fiscal year began July 1, which means that the school is operating under the budget most recently approved by the board.Smith said he planned to meet with local boards of selectmen to exchange information and try to come up with a budget that could gain their support.

Property tax bills

The delay in the process means towns in the district can’t produce accurate tax bills.

Under Maine state law, when a school district fails to get a budget approved by July 1, municipal governments are allowed to bill residents based on the most recent budget that was submitted to voters by the school board.

Some towns are taking advantage of that opportunity, while others have taken a wait-and-see approach so far.

Tax bills already have been mailed in Belgrade and Sidney, where the amount assessed was based on the $33 million school budget the board approved in May.

Oakland and China have not decided how to handle the delay.

In China, Town Manager Dan LaRue said the Board of Selectmen will decide next week whether to keep waiting for a clear resolution.

The first due date for property taxes in China is Sept. 30, less than two months away.

“If we decided to wait, we would put a notice in the paper explaining the budget process and letting the people know to expect a quick turnaround,” LaRue said.

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