FARMINGTON — Regional School Unit 9 towns appear to have voted down the district’s $33.9 million budget proposal in a divisive referendum reflecting ongoing tensions over rising education costs.

The proposed district budget called for a $1,148,163, or 3.4 percent, increase over the 2016-2017 budget. Voters also weighed in on a $317,834 bond proposal for building maintenance and repairs across the district.

Unofficial vote counts from RSU 9’s 10 towns show a 1641-1457 vote against the schools budget and 1540-1455 vote in favor of the bond issue. Farmington residents voted 644 in favor of the proposed budget and 501 against, Wilton 273-349 against, Weld 34-52, Temple 65-75, Chesterville 61-183, Starks 84-19, Vienna 61-57, New Vineyard 31-109, Industry 65-89 and New Sharon 139-207. On the bond issue, Farmington voted 663-458 in favor of the bond issue, Wilton 303-250, Weld 36-50, Temple 72-70, Chesterville 74-161, Starks 84-19, Vienna 65-54, New Vineyard 46-94, Industry 71-83 and New Sharon 126-216.

At the heart of the district’s budget fight were long simmering tensions between the RSU 9 administration and its supporters, who argue that district communities must make a long-term commitment to funding their school system at sustainable levels, and residents who see the district’s annual budget increases as burdensome, unfair and unnecessary.

That debate played out in Farmington on Tuesday, where residents heading to the town’s community center to vote were treated to streets lined with signs advocating for and against the school budget. By mid-afternoon, a group of Mt. Blue High School students had gathered on the corner of Middle Street and High Street holding signs urging passersby to “vote yes today!” on the district’s budget proposal.

One of those students, River Lisius, 17, a rising senior at Mt. Blue, said she was there to show support for a school district that made a difference in her life and help set up future generations of students for success.

“I think we need to realize the bigger picture,” Lisius said. “The best investment we can make and the furthest our money can go is when it’s invested in our kids.”

Lisius said she also wanted to help RSU 9 teachers and quickly called out two of her Mt. Blue teachers, English teacher Meadow Sheldon and history teacher Anthony Feldpausch, for radically altering her trajectory in life.

“They taught me the value of ideas and the kind of adult I want to be,” Lisius said. “Teachers had a phenomenal impact on my life, and I just think they’re heroes.”

But voters who opposed this year’s budget said it was simply unrealistic to expect lower-income residents to continue shouldering raises for RSU 9 employees.

“This is a town, not a city and the people here are blue-collar workers,” said Melinda Ripa, a no voter.

Ripa and her husband, Paul, are both retired and living on limited incomes. They own a horse farm in Farmington and already worry about covering their costs. Ripa said she believed that teachers in RSU 9 schools may make less than in other areas, but they benefit from the quality of life offered in local towns. Those who don’t like it, Ripa said, “can go.”

However, much of this year’s budget increase was due not to salary bumps, but to new hiring. The board of directors requested an additional $565,523, or 12.19 percent, increase for special education services with most of those monies going toward 17 new educational technicians. Fourteen of those technicians were assigned to students who moved into the district during the previous school year.

The board’s budget also provides funding for three new social workers at a cost of $205,913. Ward said he hoped those social workers could help mainstream students address mental health challenges before they rise to the level of requiring special education screening and services. In total the board has requested a $217,804 increase for student and staff support, a 9.85 percent increase over last year’s budget.

Paul Hersey, 68, another no voter, said while he believed that some of the district’s expenditures, including the projects covered in the school’s bond proposal, were necessary, he worried about setting higher and higher baselines for the school budget.

“We cannot continue to increase the budget over a million dollars a year,” Hersey said. “If it passes today, it’ll go up another million next year.”

But Heather Ahern Huish, an English teacher at Spruce Mountain High School in Jay, said she believed RSU 9 voters needed to think about the future. With two daughters currently enrolled at Mt. Blue High School, Ahern Huish said she worried that without further investment in education and innovation, young Mainers would continue leaving the state.

“I love Maine and without focusing on our younger generation, of which there are fewer members, we will continue to become older and less viable as an economic power,” Ahern Huish said.

Rather than focusing on the district, Ahern Huish said Mainers needed to hold their representatives in Augusta accountable for fully funding education at the state level.

“Augusta needs to be doing what they’re supposed to do,” Ahern Huish. “They need to step up and do what they were elected to do.”

Kate McCormick — 861-9218

[email protected]

Twitter: @KateRMcCormick

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