WILTON — The Regional School Unit 9 superintendent stressed the difficulties of creating a budget that meets the needs of students while remaining fiscally responsible, as residents at an informational budget meeting Monday night expressed concern over the proposed $2.2 million increase represented in the 2016-2017 budget.

“Our theme with this budget, with the board, has been (that) our job is to present a budget that meets the needs of all of our students and at the same time be fiscally responsible to all of our communities,” Superintendent Tom Ward said. “We’re working very hard to find that line.”

The proposed 2016-2017 budget represents $1.52 million in fixed cost increases over the present year’s $32,043,907 budget. There is also an increase over that figure of $724,000 in additional requests, which include new hire requests and facility projects. Deliberations on the budget began Thursday, the eighth of 16 meetings the RSU 9 board of directors has scheduled to discuss and finalize the proposed budget, which will appear before voters this June. An exact date for the districtwide budget meeting and referendum vote to accept or reject the proposed budget have not been scheduled at this point.

Ward clarified that budget deliberations just started Thursday, and the board hasn’t yet gotten to the point in the process where they begin to look at what cuts they can make in the proposed budget.

About 30 people attended the 6 p.m. informational budget meeting at the Academy Hill School, the first of three informational meetings the district is going to hold this week. Those in attendance expressed concern over this year’s budget increase as well as the increases in past years.

“If it gets much worse, I’m going to lose my house, because I don’t have that much money,” one Wilton resident said, adding that her fixed Social Security income does not go up when the budget does.

Irving Faunce, a Wilton resident and Budget Committee member, shared the woman’s concern about the rise in RSU 9 budgets over the years. Faunce said that since 2001 his property taxes have increased $1,800. He attributed $1,300 worth to the increase in property taxes implemented to fund Wilton’s share of the district’s costs.

“For us to sit here now at $2.25 (million), with deliberations ahead of use, is of great concern,” Faunce said. “I’m getting here on the edge of what I can tolerate.”

Others in attendance brought up concerns about administrative costs, specifically the hiring of a new Mt. Blue Middle School principal at a salary of $88,000. Wilton Selectman John Black said that salary “blows his mind” given that the new principal has not held a similar administrative position.

“I don’t know what the answer is, but I think there has to be a solution as far as our hiring process. I honestly think that’s a waste of our money,” Black said.

To this, Ward asked that district residents trust the hiring process district officials have developed. The incoming principal, Jason Bellerose, is currently a social studies teacher at Skowhegan Area Middle School, where he has taught for the last sixteen years. His hiring was approved by the RSU 9 board of directors last month, and he will replace retiring principal Gary Oswald at the start of school this fall.

The $1.52 million in fixed cost increases represents primarily a rise in the special education budget line, which funds the needs of 373 students within the district who require special education services. The $917,195 increase in the “District Special Service” line creates a proposed total allocation of $4,787,519 to go towards special education costs in the 2016-2017 budget year.

In January, unexpected special education costs prompted Ward to make the call to freeze the budget.

Several people questioned the increase in special education costs, but Ward said this is an unavoidable issue statewide, as districts try to remain in compliance with state standards on education for students with learning disabilities.

“Most districts in the state are struggling with increased costs to special education … we’re just trying to be in compliance,” Ward said.

The proposed increase will help fund the district’s Day Treatment Program, established in the 2013-2014 budget year, which allows students who require special education to stay within the district rather than being placed at schools outside of the district, which can cost more than $50,000 per year. The increase in funding for the program reflects an increase in the number of students requiring special education who have moved into the district. The increase in special education costs also reflects the establishment of five new education technician positions for a new adaptive life skills program for kindergartens.

“Our job is to have a school climate that allows everyone to learn,” Ward said. “So we have to have all these extra supports in the classrooms and in the school so people can learn.”

This year, the district hired a social worker as a coordinator of the day treatment program. Additionally, her position also includes coordinating billing to MaineCare seeking reimbursement for a portion of the funding the district spends annually on special education.

Ward said that through this process, the district could receive $300,000 from MaineCare in reimbursements next year.

Wilton Select Board Chair Tiffany Maiuri complemented RSU 9 district officials for taking measures to save the district money where they could. As the meeting wrapped up shortly before 8 p.m., she posed the question, “What is the way out of poverty?” Her question was in response to people at the meeting who said the job market in western Maine is not what it once was, citing that as their reason for not being able to afford the budget increase.

She handed the microphone back over to Ward who said, “Education.”

The board will hold a scheduled budget meeting tomorrow night at The Forum at Mt. Blue High School to continue budget deliberations. Two more informational meetings will be held this week in Farmington and New Sharon. On Wednesday an informational meeting will be held at 6 p.m. at the Community Center in Farmington. On Thursday a meeting will be held at the Cape Cod Hill School in New Sharon.

Lauren Abbate — 861-9252

[email protected]

Twitter: @Lauren_M_Abbate


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