School officials from Regional School Unit 18 are going back to the drawing board after voters in the five-town district rejected the proposed budget Tuesday in a ballot referendum.

School officials say that funding for charter schools will be the first thing the board will take out, but that finding more savings will be difficult.

Superintendent Gary Smith said Wednesday the administration and board did not have a plan for cuts in the event the budget was voted down.

“This was a very tight budget,” Smith said. “We put all of our eggs in one basket in the belief that it was the good spending plan for RSU 18.”

Budget opponents think the district can find savings in administration costs and other areas.

The $34.7 million budget proposed by the board represented a 2.7 percent increase from the spending plan passed last year, or about $933,760 more. The fiscal year ends June 30.

Although school officials repeatedly described the budget as tight, voters in Oakland, Belgrade, Sidney, Rome and China disagreed. The budget was defeated in a 747-619 overall vote by residents of the five towns Tuesday.

The defeat means the school board will have to recalculate a budget that it thinks voters will pass when it comes up for another referendum. Three years ago, it took three rounds of voting before the district passed a budget.

School officials said Wednesday that $115,000 for charter schools probably will be cut from the budget, but after that, there are few obvious places to reduce that won’t affect the curriculum.

“Unless you’re talking about a reduction in programs, I don’t think there’s a lot of places to go,” Smith said.

A new state law removes the requirement that local districts make payments to charter schools for students in the district who attend them, shifting responsibility to the Maine Department of Education. Some districts, such as SAD 49 in Fairfield, removed the money they had budgeted for charter schools after the law was passed.

But to the surprise of some board members, an attempt to remove the $115,000 that RSU 18 budgeted for charters this year was defeated by voters at the districtwide budget meeting May 7, and the money stayed in the budget presented in the referendum.

School Board Vice Chairman Ellwood Ellis, from China, said the proposed budget was driven by increases in salaries and benefits the board is obligated to teachers and staff under the terms of their labor contracts.

“There’s not much we can do about that,” Ellis said.

Outside of the charter school funding, there aren’t any areas in the budget that jump out as obvious places to cut, he said.

Budget opponents, however, are asking the board to look for cuts in other areas. Town officials in Rome, Sidney and Belgrade came out publicly against the budget in the lead-up to the vote, and it was defeated in all three towns.

“I’d like to see them take money out of the administration,” said Laura Parker, a selectwoman from Sidney. There are a number of parents with children who attend RSU 18 schools who voted against the budget because they think the money isn’t being spent well, she said.

“It’s a broad issue,” she said.

She also doesn’t think that the school district is being transparent with the way it builds its budget, basing the increase on what it budgeted for last year instead of what was actually spent, she said.

She said a smaller increase that matched cost of living, possibly as much as 2 percent, would be more acceptable.

Smith, on Wednesday, said building budgets based on prior year spending plans is normal practice for governments at all levels, and it was not normal to compare budgeted levels to actual spending.

The concern had been raised in Sidney before, Smith said.

“I think there are areas where we are going to have to differ on approach,” he said.

In Belgrade, where the budget was defeated by an almost 2-to-1 margin, Board of Selectpersons Chairman Ernie Rice said he would like the district to present a budget that is the same as last year.

“They should be able to flat-line that,” he said, adding that a budget increase of 0.2 percent would be acceptable.

He found the failure to take out charter school funding frustrating in particular.

“If the charter school funding wasn’t needed, what else in their budget isn’t needed?” Rice said Wednesday.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

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Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire