OAKLAND — Voters from Regional School Unit 18 approved a $34.7 million school budget Thursday at the annual budget meeting, but the proposal still awaits adoption in a districtwide referendum on May 19.

The package was passed intact, and would budget money to pay charter school tuition for students living in the district, even though the state appears to be willing to pick up that cost starting next school year.

Roughly 100 voters from Oakland, Belgrade, Sidney, Rome and China, which make up the school district, assembled at the Performance Center at Messalonskee High School to vote on the budget.

The budget increase is about 2.7 percent, or $934,000, more than the spending plan passed last year. About half of the amount, about $17 million, will be paid through local property taxes.

To the surprise of some, voters rejected a motion by school board member Kerri Oliver, from Sidney, to take out $115,000 budgeted to pay for district students that were attending charter schools.

Earlier this week, a bill that would switch responsibility for paying charter school bills from local school districts to the Maine Department of Education was passed by the Senate, and Gov. Paul LePage is expected to sign it into law.

With the state footing the bill, local districts no longer would be required to budget for estimated charter school tuition.

Instead, voters decided to keep the money in the budget.

“I was surprised,” Oliver said Friday. “With budgets, people are always looking to go down.”

There was no discussion from the floor before the vote to remove the funding, Oliver said; but board member Andrew Cook, from Rome, spoke against the motion, noting that if the money stays in the budget, it will be available if needed in emergencies

“I suggested that we not pass the amendment so we could have that money for our reserve,” Cook said Friday.

The school district maintains an undesignated fund balance of about $286,000, far less than it should, according to Cook.

“They need some reserve, some elasticity for the emergence of unexpected events,” Cook said.

He also wanted to make sure that the district wasn’t caught unaware if the state takeover of charter school payments doesn’t pass as expected, leaving the district open to accusations it hadn’t budgeted for them.

The move to change the budget was “soundly defeated,” he added.

Aside from the first warrant article, the meeting was uneventful, with most voters approving the budget amounts recommended by the board, according to Vice Chairman Elwood Ellis, from China.

Although he was “still a little surprised” that Oliver’s amendment was defeated, the district could benefit from having the money available in case of unexpected increases in tuition or special education costs, Ellis said.

Superintendent Gary Smith has called the proposed budget the tightest budget the school board has presented, but it has drawn criticism from some in the district, specifically from members of the Belgrade Board of Selectpersons, who told Smith they wouldn’t support the budget.

Although budget meeting approval means the package has passed its first hurdle, Smith said it still faces challenges in the next two weeks at the ballot box in member communities.

“There are still a lot of people out there who feel a 2.7 percent budget increase is too high,” Smith said, adding that he could understand residents’ anxiety about increased taxes.

Three years ago, voters rejected the RSU 18 budget twice before a spending plan finally was approved in October.

For Ellis, the passage of the budget at Thursday’s meeting was a good sign, but final passage wasn’t totally certain.

“I’m optimistic, but I’ll be happy when it passes,” Ellis said.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire


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