MANCHESTER — Voters at Town Meeting approved a $1.7 million budget that includes $10,000 for a controversial proposal for the town to pay for an education technician for an afternoon pre-kindergarten class at Manchester Elementary School.

Residents also decided to stick with the current town motto in an informal vote taken as part of the meeting.

The $10,000 school item, unusual on a Town Meeting warrant otherwise focused on town spending proposals, drew the most debate from the approximately 50 people at the meeting, before ultimately winning overwhelming approval.

The $10,000 in town money will allow the pre-kindergarten program at the elementary school to have an education technician work both the morning and afternoon sessions.

Regional School Unit 38, which includes Manchester, has agreed to pay the cost of a pre-kindergarten teacher and an ed tech for a half day. However, Manchester officials want to have two pre-kindergarten sessions, one morning and one afternoon, to keep class sizes down. Selectmen said 24 children are registered for pre-kindergarten, but more are likely to sign up before the next school year.

A motion at the RSU 38 budget meeting to have the school district pick up the $10,000 cost failed, leaving the item to be funded by the town or, if voters had declined, not at all.

Jessica Gurney, a teacher and new resident who said she moved to Manchester because it is where she wants her children to go to school, said quality pre-kindergarten programs have been shown to improve childrens’ ability to learn and decrease dropout and crime rates. She said the school district’s pre-K curriculum is meant to be taught by two teachers and a quality program can’t be run with only one adult for that many children.

“Do I think the RSU should have voted it in? Yes,” she said. “But they didn’t. Now it’s our job to come together, as a town, to offer a quality pre-k program for our children.”

At least two of the other three municipalities that make up RSU 38, Mount Vernon and Readfield, have pre-kindergarten programs with staff funded by the RSU, using some funding the district receives from Head Start. However, Manchester doesn’t qualify for Head Start funding because its per capita income is too high, selectmen said.

A similar proposal, for $12,000, was approved by voters at last year’s meeting.

Selectmen had recommended against passing the item in a 3-2 vote.

Selectman Robert Gasper said selectmen were told last year the RSU would pick up the full cost of the program this year.

“Last year we appropriated the money for it and (RSU officials) told us it wouldn’t happen again,” Gasper said. “It’s happening again. Nobody is against the pre-K program. My issue is the way they’re going about it. Bottom line is, it should have been in their budget, not ours.”

Residents also picked a familiar town motto at the meeting.

Selectmen earlier this year asked residents to submit ideas for a new motto. Selectmen then narrowed residents’ submissions to five finalists, and residents were asked to vote for their favorite at the meeting. The options were “A great place to live,” “Where our history contributes to our future,” “A small town with a big heart,” “A place to grow” and the current motto, “The way life is.”

The winner, and town’s new motto, was the old motto: Manchester: The way life is.

Voters also approved every other warrant article put before them at the meeting, which lasted about two hours.

The town budget, which was spread over numerous individual warrant articles, totals slightly more than $1.7 million, down by about $9,000 from the current year’s budget. However, an approximately $44,000 increase in Manchester’s share of the RSU budget, a $5,500 increase in the county tax, and a second year of reduced state revenue sharing money for Manchester mean residents are likely to face a property tax increase if everything on the warrant passes as proposed.

Town Manager Patrick Gilbert said while it’s impossible to say what the tax increase will be until the town’s total property valuation is calculated later this year, he anticipates the current rate of $14.95 for every $1,000 of value could increase to about $15.30.

One resident asked officials how they decide how much money to donate to organizations, including Crisis and Counseling, Kennebec Valley Mental Health, Bread of Life, and the Augusta Food Bank.

Gasper said the recommended contributions from the town are based upon requests made by the organizations, after officials scrutinize the requests, often reduce the amounts, and choose which to fund. He said the service each provides to Manchester residents , and the organization’s perceived need, are weighed. He said it’s an art, not science.

In examining the donation article, officials discovered a mistake in the warrant, with Life Flight, before the mistake was corrected, getting $500 and Augusta Food Bank getting $100. Moderator Libby Mitchell said town officials meant to give the food bank $500 and Life Flight $100, so those amounts were changed before the article was approved.

Keith Edwards – 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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