FARMINGTON — For the third year running, Regional School Unit 9 voters rejected the district’s budget proposal Tuesday in a vote that reflects longstanding tensions over school funding.

In a split vote, residents rejected the district’s $33.9 million budget, 1,641-1,457, while approving a $317,834 bond proposal, 1,540-1,455. As in previous years, the district’s proposed budget, which represented a 3.5 percent increase over the previous year, passed its first hurdle at the district’s May 31 annual budget vote, only to be struck down in the annual referendum.

On Tuesday in Farmington, voters who weighed in against the budget pointed to a variety of reasons for doing so, including wage stagnation and fears that the RSU 9 budget was becoming unsustainable for district towns. Melinda Ripa, 70, a “no” voter, argued that district residents simply could not afford to support the district’s annual budget increases.

“This is a town, not a city, and the people here are blue-collar workers,” Ripa said.

Other residents expressed skepticism about how the district spends money. Bob Neal, a selectman from New Sharon, said Wednesday he was glad the budget was voted down, though he did not take part in this year’s “no” campaign.

In an April interview, Neal said the district could be spending money more wisely.

“I think our student-teacher ratio is still too low,” Neal said; and while he credited Superintendent Thomas Ward with reducing the number of high school classes with only a handful of students, he said he thought other school costs remained high.

“Frankly, the growth in the special education budget just seems spectacular, and spectacular doesn’t always mean wonderful,” Neal said.

In fact, much of the district’s budget increase this year was tied to rising special education costs. The board requested an additional $565,523 in funding for special services, a 12.19 percent increase over last year. Of that proposed increase, $293,888 would go toward 17 new education technicians, 14 of whom were hired for students over the 2016-2017 school year.

In spite of the budget’s rejection Tuesday, however, RSU 9 Superintendent Thomas Ward saw some good news in the vote outcome. Ward noted the passage of the district’s bond issue request and said he thought the district did well, considering how many people voted in favor of the budget without knowing what their town assessments would be.

“I think if more people knew ‘what’s my assessment going to be to my town,’ they would have voted for it,” Ward said Wednesday. “So we’re hoping by the time we do the next round we’ll know what the assessments are, so that’ll help a great deal.”

For yet another year, RSU 9 administrators and directors were forced to put forth a budget proposal without knowing how much money the district would receive from the state. That left a great deal of uncertainty in Tuesday’s vote, particularly as the Legislature continues to debate Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to eliminate all state funding for district administration costs.

Ward said he hoped to get an update on the state budget by the end of the week. He expected the RSU 9 board would start its next round of budget deliberations at its June 27 meeting and approve a new budget by July 6. By law, the district is required to schedule its annual budget vote by July 28, Ward said.

It appears that voters are becoming increasingly accustomed to the pattern that played out Tuesday. In his town of Industry, which voted down the budget, RSU 9 board member Robert Patterson said he heard from people who assumed the vote would follow the same script as in the previous two years.

“I have heard people say, ‘Well, it always gets bumped on the first go-around, and more than likely it’ll be a close vote on the second go-around, but chances are it’ll get passed,'” Patterson said.

Patterson said he was not surprised that Industry had rejected the budget, describing the vote as “typical.” He was not sure where or by how much the board would look to cut the budget down.

“There’s always room to trim,” Patterson said. “I mean, there are things that have been added to the budget that were thought that would go through, and I’m sure something is going to get trimmed there from things we had discussion on.”

But board member Richard Hargreaves, of New Vineyard, said he wished more voters had weighed in during the May budget vote on what, specifically, they would like to see cut. New Vineyard also rejected the budget Tuesday, but Hargreaves said he was aware of only three New Vineyard voters participating in the May public hearing.

“If voters wanted to cut particular areas in the school budget, they need to come to the budget hearing, and that would be the place where they could be successful in cutting particular areas rather than cutting the overall budget,” Hargreaves said. “But for some reason people are happy to come to the polls but don’t like to come to the public hearing, where they could make a difference in where the money is spent.”

Hargreaves said he had seen signs around New Vineyard advocating for cuts to administration costs and salaries but suspected most of the board’s upcoming cuts would be to programming. The board already has negotiated administrators’ contracts, Hargreaves said, and would be unlikely to revisit cuts to administration salaries or positions without a mandate from voters. Without that input, Hargreaves said, the board would have to work with the information it has on administrative costs.

“We have statistics on what administrative costs are in other districts as well as what other costs are in other districts, and you know it’s clear that the costs are not out of line with other districts, by any means,” Hargreaves said.

Kate McCormick — 861-9218

[email protected]

Twitter: @KateRMcCormick

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