FARMINGTON — The Regional School Unit 9 board of directors voted Thursday for a $33,552,748 budget proposal, a 2.45 percent increase over the 2016-2017 school year.

The new budget represents a $344,524 reduction from the $33.9 million budget rejected by voters earlier this month. The proposal is expected to increase town assessments by 2.92 percent, down from the 5.58 percent called for in the board’s original budget proposal.

The districtwide budget meeting on the proposal is scheduled for 7 p.m. July 25 on the Mt. Blue campus. The budget referendum is scheduled for Aug. 3.

Over nearly three hours, board members debated and voted on four separate budget proposals, with reductions ranging from $344,524 to more than $1 million. While some board members advocated for waiting until the district learned more about its state funding allocation, others argued the board should strive for a budget that lowered town assessments and cut the district’s debt load, even in the absence of state numbers.

As they contemplated just where to make their cuts, many board members reflected on the growing mental health needs of the district’s students. In its initial budget, the board had added funding for three new social workers. Following a board request last week, Superintendent Thomas Ward provided data showing the number of suicide assessments across the district and Department of Health and Human Services referrals over the previous school year.

The data show that last year district schools performed suicide assessments for students of all ages including 27 assessments for students in grade 5 or lower. Mt. Blue Middle School had the highest number of assessments — 87 last year alone, with seven of those leading to hospitalizations. The district made a total of 81 referrals to DHHS.

In response to a proposal to cut the social worker positions, along with several others, board member Cherieann Harrison spoke about the need to intervene with district students before they find themselves in crisis.

“Even very recently Western Maine has lost students to suicide,” Harrison said. “It is not a cure-all, but I would feel more like we were there for them and that we were trying if we had that support staff in place.”

Harrison argued that the social workers could address mental health needs earlier on, potentially pre-empting the need to create specialized education plans for those students.

While several members agreed with Harrison and spoke out in support of keeping funding for the social workers, the board ultimately voted to strip the positions from the budget. In a 459-458 vote, the board cut the social workers along with additional funding for a student services coordinator and high school counselor, an educational technician at the Academy Hill School, American Sign Language and science teachers and money to go toward the district’s technology infrastructure.

However, the board did reserve the right to revisit the cuts once state funding numbers come in. As part of the annual budget vote, residents will weigh in on an article that would allow the board to use any excess state money, first to lower district town assessments and then to direct funds toward other educational needs.

Kate McCormick — 861-9218

[email protected]

Twitter: @KateRMcCormick

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