OAKLAND — Voters in five towns today will decide the fate of the Regional School Unit 18 budget, two larger versions of which were rejected at the polls over the summer.

A Sidney selectman who led the charge against the larger budget said she supports this flat version and has shifted her focus to ensuring that next year’s budget is flat as well.

Superintendent Gary Smith said the current flat-funded budget amount of $31,972,592 is in line with voter sentiment in the district’s towns — Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney.

Voters rejected a $33 million version of the budget in June and a $32.6 million version in August.

The most recent round of cuts included $354,223 in salary and benefits reductions, $95,000 in building maintenance projects, $78,000 in professional development, $75,000 in technology equipment and $35,000 in a bus replacement plan. Teachers in the district also volunteered to take a $225-per-teacher cut to their yearly salaries.

Smith said “what I’m reading through the tea leaves is that folks are comfortable, maybe not happy with where the budget is, but more accepting of where it’s landed.”

Smith urged support for the budget from people on both sides of the issue and said further delays would harm students.

“If people feel strongly one way or the other about the budget, then let’s talk about it for next year,” he said.

Sidney Selectwoman Kelly Couture, who opposed the budget’s earlier versions, said concerns about the school funding’s effect on property taxes has been well-managed in the current proposal.

“I’m thankful that they listened to voters and have cut the million dollars that we had asked for,” she said Monday. “I enthusiastically will vote yes for the budget.”

While the Sidney board has not voted officially on the new budget, “we definitely are in favor of the budget as they presented it this time,” she said.

Couture said she is focused on next year’s budget, which she said should be kept flat because of the poor economy.

“They have to hold on tight for another year, because people are struggling and it’s predicted it’s going to get worse,” she said.

Couture said residents concerned about the tax effect will be represented at the school’s budget meetings for next year.

Smith said he welcomes resident involvement. “I’ve developed a lot of budgets over the years. I’ve found that ones that have more participation with multiple perspectives along the way, even though it might be more challenging, (have) produced a better product,” he said.

Smith said next year’s budget will be just as difficult as this year’s.

“We’ve used a large amount of our fund balance this year, and that’s gone,” Smith said. “What I’m hearing at the state and federal levels, those monies are not being replaced.”

Still, Smith said it will be important for people to come to the process with an open mind.

“Let’s build a budget around the needs of our students and that balances the property tax impact on our communities. Let’s not just draw a line in the sand and say it’s got to be higher or it’s got to be lower.”

While work on individual budget issues is already ongoing, Smith said meetings for the public aren’t scheduled to begin until February.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287

[email protected]

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