OAKLAND — Voters will be given the opportunity to restore funding or make further cuts to the Regional School Unit 18 budget on Thursday, June 18, at the district budget meeting.

On Wednesday, the school board voted 8-1 to keep warrant articles at the budget meeting open, meaning voters can make a floor motion to add or subtract money in each article. Typically, warrant articles are closed, which means that voters only can move to reduce the amount spent.

The vote to keep articles open came after the board adopted $292,671 in budget cuts, reducing its proposed 2015-16 budget to $34.3 million. RSU 18 includes Oakland, China, Rome, Belgrade and Sidney. The spending plan is 1.9 percent larger than last year’s budget.

Voters rejected the original $34.7 million budget in a May 18 ballot referendum, and there is still strong opposition to the revised budget from elected officials in Rome, Belgrade and Sidney.

Cuts made by the board included the elimination of a teaching position at Messalonskee Middle School and the reduction to half-time of an English language assistant at the high school. Administrators at the meeting Wednesday said neither cut would affect education significantly.

Other reductions included $115,000 allotted for payments to charter schools, a restructuring of the China Middle School administration, a $50,000 reduction in health insurance and the elimination of two bus runs in China.

The board preserved other teaching positions, music and sports programs and a 3 percent pay raise for administrators. Superintendent Gary Smith proposed $565,000 in possible budget cuts.

At the meeting, board members said they were barraged with emails from residents opposed to cutting the budget and vowing to come out in favor of the budget in the next referendum. That made some board members reluctant to reduce the budget too far, out of concern that those opposed to cuts could defeat it at the ballot box.

Board members Mary-Anne LaMarre and Tom Burton, of Oakland, and Debra McSweeny, of Belgrade, even felt confident enough in voter support to move to adopt a budget without any cuts to send back to voters, but their attempt was defeated in a 5-3 vote.

LaMarre, reached on Friday, declined to comment about the budget, stating that she was not authorized to speak to the press.

But member Andrew Cook, of Rome, said he thought there was a chance voters would replace funding that the board has voted to cut. Cook said he has been getting two or three emails a day from voters voicing support for the budget.

“We are getting more and more vocal push-back from those that are concerned about quality of education and the budget getting cut,” he said. The difference would be whether that support translated into votes in the referendum, he added.

The original budget was voted down 747-619. About 10 percent of registered voters in the five towns participated in the election.

John DeWitt, a parent from Sidney, said rejection of the budget last month might galvanize voters who stayed home the first time. He expects to see a push to restore funding at the district budget meeting and a larger turnout at the referendum.

“Why would you prioritize just about anything over education?” DeWitt said.

Flat funding for education isn’t an option when the costs for everything else have increased, he added.

“We have gotten into this pattern of continually questioning even the smallest growth,” DeWitt said.

But despite the cuts, there is still steadfast opposition to the amended spending plan.

In the lead-up to the May vote, the boards of selectmen in Rome, Sidney and Belgrade came out publicly in opposition to the budget, arguing that increased spending would mean higher property taxes.

“I think it’s horrible,” said Tim Russell, a Sidney selectman, when asked about the new budget adopted by the board. “I would have preferred to see the full slate of cuts.”

While he acknowledges that the school department has lost state funding support, it should moderate its spending to compensate for lost revenue, Russell said.

“They have an ever-increasing budget no matter what happens to their revenues,” Russell said. “It absolutely can’t go on this way.”

Laura Parker, another member of the Sidney Board of Selectmen, concurred.

“We all need to be living within our means, and I don’t think its right to assume it should be the taxpayers of these five towns that make up that money,” she said.

The proposed budget would mean a 10.4 percent increase in spending on education in Sidney, Parker said, the equivalent of more than $30,000 per month in additional payments to the school.

Parker said she was disappointed that the board voted to keep wage raises for administrators at the expense of a teaching position.

“To me, it speaks to priorities,” she said.

The select board in Rome has yet to take an official position, but Selectman Richard LaBelle said the cuts were not enough for him to support the budget.

“I would have liked to see a flat budget,” LaBelle said. “We would be open to more creative ideas as long as the proposals were genuine.”

The same held true for Ernie Rice, chairman of the Belgrade Board of Selectpersons. Although the board has to meet to discuss the budget’s effect on the town, Rice said he wanted to see the spending increase come down “well below 2 percent.”

“Personally, unless they start sharpening their pencils up there, I’m not ready to support this,” Rice said.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: PeteL_McGuire


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