FAIRFIELD — Voters in School Administrative District 49 approved pulling about $461,000 from next year’s school budget during the annual budget meeting Thursday evening. The money would have been spent on payments to charter schools, but it’s likely that the state Department of Education now will shoulder that burden, thanks to legislation that the Maine Senate passed earlier this week.

More than 120 voters from Fairfield, Albion, Benton and Clinton assembled in the Lawrence Junior High School gymnasium in Fairfield to vote on the 17-article school budget warrant.

While voters were receptive to cutting funding for charter schools from the budget, many raised concerns that residents of the four towns would not be able to sustain continued tax increases.

The original $26.3 million budget proposed by the school board was about $1.2 million larger than last year’s and would have meant property tax increases of more than 10 percent in the four towns.

With the elimination of charter school payments, the amount is reduced slightly, but a tax increase still might be required.

Fairfield Town Manager Josh Reny, speaking to school board members, noted that dropping the charter funding would reduce the tax increase in Fairfield from 10 percent to 8 percent, increasing the property rate in town by about $1.60 per $100,000 in property valuation.

Albion resident Marc Gilbert said he was tired of paying higher taxes and wondered whether the board had a strategy for making serious reductions in the budget.

“Where will it end?” he asked the school board, which was sitting at a long table facing the assembled voters.

“The taxes have to stop. You have to cut someplace,” he said.

Other voters echoed Gilbert’s concerns. Fairfield Town Council member Michael Taylor said he was concerned that school taxes would continue to increase in the future at an unsustainable rate.

“If we continue this trend, you will not have a tax base to get tax money from,” he told the board.

Several voters asked the board whether it had considered consolidating schools or closing some as a way to save money. Jeff Marshall, from Fairfield, questioned whether the board members were imaginative enough in coming up with solutions to the district’s budget increases and warned it might take some drastic measures.

“We’ve got to take the bulls by the horns in these towns and do some serious cutting,” Marshall said.

But school board members and administration said they had looked at consolidation as a solution before and were unconvinced about the savings potential.

Most of the increases, School Board Chairman Steven Grenier said, were the result of cost shifts from the state, including heightened responsibility for Maine State Retirement funding.

“I have to blame it on the state, and you can’t blame it on the school system,” Grenier said.

Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, who represents Senate District 16, which includes the district’s four towns, took exception to the school board’s depiction of the state’s responsibility for its budget woes, noting an increase of $25 million in general-purpose state aid that was being supported by the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

“You can’t blame everything on the state,” Cyrway said.

His remarks, however, touched off an angry rebuke from many of the school board members, who challenged his figures and stated that he had been unresponsive to their attempts to contact him for support over the legislative session.

“I think you are playing fast and loose with the facts,” said board member Stewart Kinley, of Fairfield.

Through all the discussion, it was not until around 8:30 p.m. that voters got around to taking up the first article of the warrant, which included the lion’s share of education funding, about $10.3 million. Several called for a secret ballot for the important vote, and it passed 81-40. Voters still had about 10 articles to act on at around 9 p.m. A districtwide referendum on the budget is scheduled for Tuesday, May 19.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire

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