OAKLAND — The budget for Regional School Unit 18 received initial approval from residents at its district budget hearing Thursday evening and now heads to a referendum vote June 13 for a final decision.

About 75 people from the towns of Oakland, Rome, Sidney, Belgrade and China attended the hearing, which is the first step in a two-part budget process.

The budget of $36.04 million is an increase of 4.16 percent over last year’s spending plan, driven chiefly by a rise in needs for special education and behavioral services.

The increase includes a new Day One program, which uses the district as its fiscal agent for its Good Will-Hinckley program. The state Department of Education provides the funding, so the money merely passes through the district. With Day One removed from the budget, the increase is around 3.60 percent, superintendent Gary Smith said.

RSU 18 is also struggling with a potential hit to revenue. As it stands now, the district would lose $700,000 under Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed education spending plan, which recommends 48 changes to the funding formula for Essential Programs and Services.

The budget passed 88-5 at the Thursday night hearing, with school board member Karen Hatch Gagne voting against it.

After the meeting, Hatch Gagne said she has a “number of concerns” with how the district uses the Essential Programs and Services formula.

“We expend a whole lot more money than the” formula recommends, she said. She declined to expand on her comments, but said she is more “fiscally responsible” and thinks there is a way to support academics and relieve taxpayers at the same time.

An article determining how to distribute any additional state revenue was also approved. If the district receives more funds, which Smith said he expects it will, 50 percent of it will be used to reduce the local taxpayers’ cost, 25 percent for additional school costs and the remaining 25 percent will go in the district’s fund balance.

After some people in the audience questioned the distribution, school board member Andrew Cook spoke to encourage people to vote in favor of it.

The district needs some of the additional money to put toward its nutrition deficit, fix safety issues and hire teachers. Its auditors have also encouraged the district to add more to the fund balance, which is used for emergencies.

“Is it a perfect solution? Absolutely not. Is it the best option for our students? Absolutely,” Cook said.

While all of the articles were approved, the school board did hear some criticism from Timothy Russell, a selectman in Sidney; Gary Mahler, a Belgrade selectman; and Dennis Keschl, who will begin working as Belgrade town manager in June. All three were on the cost-sharing committee this past year.

They questioned how some funds would be spent and if additional funds could be shielded from administrative costs.

Mahler, in an interview after the meeting, said he thinks the proposed budget is “high.” While he supports the school, he said Belgrade was disappointed with the outcome of the cost-sharing committee. After members circulated a petition, the school board voted to reconvene the committee just two months after its final vote.

Both Belgrade and Rome are in favor of a change to the current cost-sharing formula, which determines how much each town needs to raise in local funds for the district.

Mahler also said he thinks 100 percent of any additional state money should go toward taxpayers.

Keschl agreed, saying that they have to support “the poor taxpayers.” Belgrade raises the largest amount, he said, but “we have poor people in our town.”

“I think we have to think smarter about education,” Keschl said. “I’m not one that believes that spending more money is the right thing to do.”

Still, he said he respects the school and the board and wasn’t “terribly upset” about the budget.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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