WALES — The Regional School Unit 4 school board’s third stab at a budget cuts an additional $59,000 from the amount to be paid with local taxes.

The local savings are a combination of a $44,000 cut in purchases of iPads for the younger grades and $15,000 in anticipated revenue from increasing activities fees at the middle school and high school.

The figure approved by the board — $17,650,740 — cuts less from technology than the $69,000 stated by school leaders during Wednesday night’s meeting, which Business Manager Scott Eldridge said Thursday was the result of several changes being proposed in quick succession during a late-night meeting.

The first two versions of the budget include money to buy an iPad for every student in grades K-3. After many residents and some school board members objected to the purchase, Superintendent Jim Hodgkin recommended on Wednesday that the board reduce the program by three-quarters to save $60,000.

School board members, including Chairman Robert Gayton Jr., of Sabattus, and Vice Chairman Robert English, of Wales, said having iPads would give the students an early fluency and familiarity with technology necessary for working in the new global economy.

English said that if students each have their own iPad, their individual progress can be tracked in educational apps.

But Litchfield resident Veronica Dumais, who uses two iPads in her classroom in another district, said that can be accomplished with shared iPads.

Like many residents who spoke at the meeting, Dumais said RSU 4 should focus more on strong instruction and proper use of technology before adding more.

“(My son’s) grades went down because of this customized learning that we’re doing,” Dumais said. “You know what, he’s learned nothing. I feel bad for this kid, I really do. He’s going by the skin of his teeth. If it wasn’t for sports, I don’t know where he would be. You need to look at technology and make sure kids are learning instead of watching videos of what the teachers should be teaching.”

Some members of the audience spoke in favor of the iPads, but they were far outnumbered by people who opposed the purchase.

The other change incorporated into the budget is an increase in activities fees for extracurricular activities. The fee at Oak Hill High School will be doubled to $50 per activity, with a cap of $100 per student, and a new $25 fee will be implemented at Oak Hill Middle School, with a cap of $50 per student.

Family caps and waivers for low-income students may be added.

The new budget is about $50,000 more than the district spent last year. Because of a reduction in state aid, the amount to be paid locally would rise by $659,913, or 9.7 percent.

Eldridge said the appropriation for each town would increase by 6.5 percent in Litchfield, 12.8 percent in Sabattus and 11 percent in Wales.

The regional budget meeting to approve the new figure is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 21 and the referendum for Tuesday, Aug. 27. Residents voted down the $17.69 budget July 16. It was rejected for the first time June 11.

Discussion at the school board meeting on Wednesday revealed deep disagreements about whether and how the district budget should be cut, both on the board and in the audience. Almost 200 people turned out for the meeting, which lasted nearly four hours.

Three motions failed before a majority of board members agreed on a number for the district’s third attempt at passing a budget.

The budget was approved 6-2, with Sabattus board member Amadeo Lauria and Litchfield board member Scott Weeks voting against it.

Hodgkin also recommended elimination of the position of operations manager to save $61,000. He said he made the recommendation reluctantly, because RSU 4 benefits from that position, but many residents have said they don’t think it’s necessary.

Jim Wilkens oversees facilities maintenance, transportation and food service, and Gayton said he has saved the district more than his position costs. Wilkens will become even more vital due to money-saving building upgrades that are going in this year, Gayton said.

Several audience members also spoke up for the value of having someone in Wilkens’ position, and a motion by Weeks to eliminate it failed.

Hodgkin said at the end of the meeting that he was sorry to hear residents’ “horror stories” about RSU 4 and its staff, and he doesn’t think they accurately reflect the district.

Hodgkin said it’s frustrating to deal with the effects of reduced state funding. The district’s budget is $600,000 less than it was five years ago.

“Things don’t cost less five years later, they cost more,” he said. “It’s not our fault, not your fault, but students are essentially being held hostage here. All of us feel really badly about that, but the circumstances are completely out of our control.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
[email protected]

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