OAKLAND — Residents in Regional School Unit 18 gave initial approval Thursday night to a $34.6 million school budget, up less than 1 percent from the current budget.

“This is a big step in the budget process, and I hope you will all support the budget on May 24,” said RSU 18 Superintendent Gary Smith at the budget meeting at Messalonskee High School. The district includes Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney.

About 100 people attended Thursday’s meeting, which was the first step in a two-step budget approval process. A referendum is scheduled for May 24.

The $34,605,635 budget is up 0.65 percent from the current $34,382,408 budget and includes $275,256 more in state aid than the district received last year.

Discussion at the meeting was driven largely by one resident, Sherry Gilbert, of Oakland, who made a motion to lower nearly every item on the 17-article budget warrant.

Gilbert said at the beginning of the meeting that her goal was to lower the budget by about $200,000 overall in order to get it “back to what it was (this year).”

“The budget as it is is unsustainable and taxpayers can’t afford it,” said Gilbert, who described herself as a senior citizen and retired teacher living on a fixed income. “We need to lower it.”

None of the items in the budget was amended and the discussion mostly focused on administrative costs, with Gilbert and two other residents questioning the amount of money the district spends on administration.

“My feeling is that spending is top-heavy and should be shrunken down,” Gilbert said.

Smith was paid a salary of $112,414 last year and is scheduled to receive a 3 percent raise to earn $116,173 plus dental and health insurance, according to the proposed budget. Overall the budget for district administration is down just under 2 percent from the current year; and the budget for school administration, which includes the costs of principals’ offices and salaries, is up just under 2 percent.

School board member Andrew Cook, of Rome, said in a rebuttal that residents should look at whether the district is getting the results it wants when considering how much to pay its administrators.

“Our 2015 graduation rate of 92 percent is six points higher than the Maine average,” Cook said. “In my opinion, the school administration is accountable for delivering those kinds of results. Are they adequately paid? In my mind, no, but they’re doing a great job with the resources they have and we need to continue to improve on those results. For me the amount of money we’re paying is below what you would expect for someone getting these kinds of results.”

Bonnie Sears, another Oakland resident, who also said she lives on a fixed income, agreed with Gilbert that the district was paying too much in administrative costs.

“I don’t like the mindset that the only way to get good administrators is by paying the big bucks,” Sears said. “Rewards and benefits aren’t always just financial.”

Gilbert, who is also a member of Oakland’s Budget and Advisory Committee, said after the meeting that she talks with many older residents in the town who are unable to keep up with rising taxes, and that was the main reason she opposed the school budget.

“If you go out and talk to seniors, they’re buying medicine, paying rent and putting food on the table,” she said. “What’s next? The taxes. It’s so hard on them, and a lot of them can’t make ends meet.”

In addition to the proposed $34.6 million budget, school district residents at the May 24 referendum also will be asked to approve the continuation of the two-step budget process for an additional three years as well as authorize the district to take out a loan of up to $340,930, with no interest, through the state to fund school safety projects and repairs.

Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. May 24 at the Belgrade Community Center in Belgrade, from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Town Office in China, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Williams Elementary School in Oakland, noon to 8 p.m. at the Rome Community Center in Rome, and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Town Office in Sidney.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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