The board members of Regional School Unit 4 — the school district composed of Litchfield, Wales and Sabattus — are going back to the drawing board after their proposed 2016-2017 budget was rejected by just 18 votes at the polls Tuesday. Districtwide, 465 voters supported the budget and 483 rejected it.

The proposed $18.9 million budget had been approved by the RSU 4 board and, for final approval, required a validation vote by member towns Tuesday.

Residents in Wales and Sabattus supported the budget, with respective votes of 87-56 and 151-142. But just 227 residents supported the budget in Litchfield, while 285 opposed it. That margin was enough to sink the proposal, which was 1.84 percent higher than this year’s budget.

One of the reasons for the proposed increase was a $422,014 reduction in the amount of state aid to the district for the 2017 school year. The budget proposal also included a $341,711 increase for, among other things, a bus, textbooks, technology investments and a new dean of students position that was meant to address an increase in problematic behavior by students.

About 1,430 students are enrolled in the district.

In a brief interview Wednesday, district Superintendent James Hodgkin said he would be asking board members for direction at a previously scheduled meeting Wednesday night on ways to change the budget before sending it back to residents for another vote. He said the district has a “pretty narrow window” of time to get the budget passed, as towns must send their tax bills to residents soon.

This isn’t the first time in recent years when voters have rejected the RSU 4 budget. In 2015, voters in June defeated the original budget by about 30 votes, requiring another vote in July. And in 2013, the budget was twice rejected by voters before gaining final approval in August of that year.

A number of Litchfield residents who were interviewed before, during and after Tuesday’s election criticized the budget proposal, saying residents on fixed incomes have trouble keeping pace with the rising taxes. They argued Litchfield, which sends fewer students to RSU 4 schools than Sabattus but has a higher property valuation, is forced to pay a disproportionate amount of the district’s funding formula.

The rejected budget would have increased Litchfield’s tax rate by $107.63 for every $100,000 of property someone has, but Sabattus’ by just $101.99 for every $100,000 and Wales’ by just $100.36 per $100,000.

“We end up paying quite a bit more per student than the other two towns. I think that’s a good reason the budget failed,” said Scott Weeks, one of three Litchfield residents who sits on the RSU 4 board.

Weeks was the only board member to vote against the budget before it went to voters, he said Wednesday. While he didn’t oppose the budget itself, he was aware of the local opposition to it and was hoping to reduce the proposed costs before they could be rejected by voters, he said.

The board is now in “a very tough place,” Weeks went on, because “our budget is, honestly, overall pretty lean. There are some other efficiencies that we can probably do better at and pick away at this year, but there are no big ticket items that we can easily remove. There’s no low-hanging fruit.”

In a letter sent out to the district ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Superintendent Hodgkin used starker language.

“I can tell you with absolute certainty that there is no ‘excess’ in this budget,” he wrote. “The impact of losing $200,000 to the RSU 4 budget would be huge, likely resulting in more staff losses and/or program losses.”

Weeks blamed the tough financial situation on the decreasing amount of state aid that has gone to local schools. He was echoed by several voters Tuesday, including Gregory Larrabee, a retired Maine Department of Transportation employee; and Doug Read, a retired school principal.

Another resident, Marlene Patten, a former education technician for Augusta schools, said she thought the district’s special education costs were “grossly overbudgeted.”

“I voted against it,” Patten said of the budget. “I’m really tired of it going up every single year, on the backs of taxpayers.”

In the short term, Weeks said, the board would look for areas to reduce the budget before sending it back to voters, though he couldn’t identify any specifics.

In the longer term, he invited Litchfield residents to voice their grievances sooner in the budget season, so that the board can take them into account as they draft future budgets. He also wants to update the district’s funding formula to make it more “equitable” to towns such as Litchfield.

On Tuesday, RSU 4 voters also rejected, in a 168-356 vote, a proposal to light up the football field at Oak Hill High School, which would be paid for in bonds not to exceed $200,000.

In a 323-186 vote, they approved a measure to keep sending the budget to residents for a validation vote for the next three years.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker


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