OAKLAND — Roughly five months into this fiscal year, discussion already is turning to next year’s budget for Regional School Unit 18.

The school district, which includes the towns of Rome, Sidney, Oakland, Belgrade and China, has been through tumultuous budget sessions in recent years. Last year, voters rejected a proposed $34.7 million budget in a referendum in May. The school board cut nearly $293,000 from the spending plan and it was approved in a second referendum a month later. In 2012, it took three referendum votes before a budget finally was approved.

Since then, a town committee in Belgrade has started meeting to determine the town’s future and a school board committee is taking stock of the district’s facilities to find efficiencies. Last month, district officials hosted a governance meeting to discuss the state’s education funding system, including a presentation from Suzan Beaudoin, the state Department of Education’s director of school finance and operations.

“It’s almost like our budget work didn’t end this year,” Superintendent Gary Smith said.

State and local governments share the cost of education, based on a complicated state formula that includes a variety of factors such as student and teacher population, property valuation and other calculations.

According to figures from the Department of Education, the state subsidy RSU 18 receives has declined by about $2.2 million since 2010, to $12.8 million this year. At the same time, student enrollment has declined by 300, but property values have remained high, compared to those of the rest of the state.

Those factors mean that in the past five years, the amount of money local taxpayers have to raise for education has increased, an issue that has led to discontent about the budget. Others have rallied in support of full funding for education.

The state won’t release estimates of the amount of state aid school districts will receive for the 2016-17 fiscal year until February, but Smith said that unless there is more state funding for education, RSU 18 could be seeking another increase in the local share of education next year.

“If you look forward, the message is that property valuations are outpacing other towns in the state and enrollment is continuing to drop. You will receive less and less state aid for education,” Smith said.

The district holds a governance meeting at least once a year to communicate education policy and financing with citizens, but it is holding two this school year, Smith said. A second meeting in February will focus on district spending. The intent is to have the meeting early enough in the budget process so people can talk about concerns they have about district spending, Smith said.

“People have come to these meetings and they felt like their voices weren’t heard or (they) didn’t see the results they wanted,” he said.

Laura Parker, a Sidney selectwoman who opposed the school budget last year, said she was glad to get information on the state funding formula and the early meeting with district officials was welcome.

“I think over the last few years it has been made abundantly clear to the school board that people are watching and people want to know how their tax dollars are being spent,” Parker said.

“Because of that, they have been forced to be more forthcoming with information,” she added.

Although the district appears to be making overtures to those concerned about spending, there will still be “philosophical differences” between the towns and school district, including the district’s need to maintain cash reserves that are much larger than what towns carry, Parker said. Residents are also concerned about school budgets increasing at the same time the student population is decreasing.

“That’s a huge question a lot of people have in our district,” Parker said.

In Belgrade, where voters voted against the school budget in both referendums this spring, a town committee was established in September to review its relationship with RSU 18 and judge whether it makes fiscal sense to remain in the district.

Committee member Howard Hollinger, who is also the chairman of the Belgrade Budget Committee, said Wednesday that the panel plans to have a recommendation ready in time for Town Meeting in March.

“Absolutely no conclusions have been drawn. We are still in a fact-finding phase, trying to get a realistic handle on the cost factors involved,” Hollinger said.

Some Belgrade residents say tax increases in recent years have affected their town disproportionately, and there are people who believe that the information provided by the district has been less than forthright, Hollinger added.

“It’s a tough situation,” he said.

The school board in September set up a facilities committee to take stock of its buildings and offer recommendations on categories in which the district can find efficiencies and savings.

Smith said this week that the committee is discussing numerous options, including consolidating or closing some of the district’s elementary schools. Many of the schools have 200 students and are inefficient to run and educate students in, Smith said. Meanwhile, Messalonskee Middle School, one of the district’s newest buildings, was built to hold up to 750 students but only has 500 and easily could accommodate another grade without significant cost, Smith said.

The committee is expected to come out with a white paper on facilities early next year, he added.

“This is all about making our school system as fiscally responsible as it can be while providing a quality education to our students,” Smith said.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire


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