Residents of the 10 towns in Regional School Unit 9 will go to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to accept a school budget that cut nearly $1 million from the budget proposed by the district, a move which school administrators say would cost the district in legal fees and federal funding if they can’t maintain the required fiscal effort to provide special education and its related services.

“We’ll either be paying lawyers or paying teachers,” Christine Shea, director of special education, said.

More than 300 people turned out at Mt. Blue High School Tuesday where voters approved a $32.7 million budget for 2017-18. That figure represents a decrease of $980,197 from the school board’s proposed $33.6 million budget.

While $74,508 was cut from regular education, bringing the total down to $10,210,661, the primary target was funding for special education. Voters passed a special education budget of $4,639,610, cutting $545,358 from the amount proposed by the board.

Those in favor of the reduction — and many voters indicated it was the biggest issue in the proposed budget — pointed out that it is the job of the school board and superintendent Dr. Tom Ward to make the necessary shifts in budgeting to cover the needs of special education.

But the groundswell of opposition to the amount of the special education budget may be only the most visible evidence of dissatisfaction with what some characterize as relentless increases in costs and a failure to listen to concerns, while others argue that those same increases are necessary to meet the growing needs of the district’s students and to deliver an adequate education to the children of Chesterville, Farmington, Industry, New Sharon, New Vineyard, Starks, Temple, Vienna, Weld and Wilton.

A yes vote on Tuesday is in favor of the $32.7 million budget with its almost $1 million cut. A no vote will start the budget process again.

SPECIAL EDUCATION

Schools are legally obligated to fund special education, and cutting $545,358 from the special education budget presents RSU 9 with a challenge that could mean changes in what the district has to offer all its students.

Schools are required to maintain 100 percent fiscal effort from year to year for special education and related services, which is known as Maintenance of Effort, or MOE. The federal requirement is meant to ensure that the funding isn’t cut in tough times. The law allows for a few exceptions, such as the retirement of a highly skilled and costly staff member or the graduation of a high-cost student.

Director of special education Christine Shea said school officials aren’t yet sure if the district would be able to make the required fiscal effort with the newly proposed budget.

The district budget director has yet to run the numbers, but the possibility of the district falling short of its MOE is concerning. Schools that fail to meet their MOE requirements can lose federal funding.

The proposed cuts to special education would also bring the district out of compliance with another aspect of federal law that requires schools to provide the services built in to students’ Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, Shea said.

There are 389 students with IEPs within RSU 9, and 70 of those students have intensive needs, 12 requiring out-of-district attention and the remaining 58 requiring self-contained classrooms, both of which are costly.

Schools are required to provide the services listed in a student’s IEP, and “parents can and have sued in the past,” Shea said. While the district has only had to call an attorney once in the past five years over this issue, in the past, when the district had weaker programs, “there were many, many cases brought by parents that felt that their children’s needs weren’t being met.”

While the district wouldn’t be held financially liable for damages, it would have to pay attorneys for representation during due process and mediation, which Shea said is expensive.

Shea didn’t immediately have a number for the cost of legal fees for those specific issues in the past, but she is working on that, she said.

The district would also be forced into compensatory education, meaning the state Department of Education or Disability Rights Maine would force it to either provide the service in the school, even if not included in the original budget, or pay parents to provide that service to children outside of school.

“With the budget that was proposed last time, we would have been, by the skin of our teeth, making it,” Shea said, but the newly cut budget could put them in clear violation.

The prior budget already contained cuts that made Shea’s job difficult, she said. For example, her department originally requested two more social workers, as they are part of many students’ IEPs, but it was brought down to a part-time social worker, and now no social worker.

“Just this week, I had a parent who questioned me and said, ‘Isn’t it your legal obligation to provide these services?'” Shea said. “I said, ‘We’ll try to find a way to provide it.’ I don’t know how we’ll do that … The bottom has fallen out.”

WHO WILL VOTE

If voters on Tuesday approve the proposed $32.7 million budget, officials will have to work with those numbers and make cuts in other areas of the budget, according to RSU 9 Superintendent Tom Ward. School officials already have frozen expenditures and new hires, and the amount of money represented by those actions does not come close to $980,197, Ward said Thursday.

If voters on Tuesday reject the proposed budget, officials will have to go back to the budget process and hold another budget meeting and referendum vote, Ward said.

“That would push us to the end of October before we could have a referendum,” he said.

Ward said that whatever budget is eventually approved, school officials will learn what the community wants and work with that.

This is the first time the budget has been delayed so long, said Ward, who is in his fifth year as superintendent. Two previous budgets were voted down, but approved at the second referendum before school started, he said.

Opponents of the $33.6 million budget who call themselves the Concerned Citizens Group packed the high school Tuesday to make cuts to the proposal.

“We have worked with them,” Ward said. “We do listen, but our goal is to present a budget that meets the minimum needs of our kids, but at the same time is one we feel is fiscally responsible to the communities.”

Ward said he thinks that those who backed the schools proposed budget were complacent, that usually the budget passes at the annual meeting, but not enough people showed up to vote Tuesday. He also said that many people may not have attended because of the terrific storm that hit the area Tuesday night.

“Between complacency and not wanting to go out in bad weather, they had strong support,” he said of the budget opponents.

He said he thinks people who supported the original school board budget of $33.6 million will vote in the referendum.

“I’m guessing there’s going to be a huge voter turnout next Tuesday,” he said.

District school officials are frugal, as they are in other districts, he said, and he points out RSU 9’s low per pupil expenditure, which is 41st out of 231 in the state, as recorded in the latest state figures, from 2015-16.

“We don’t seem to be able to get that message across,” Ward said.

The state allocated RSU 9 $20,213,319 and the local communities must raise $10,215,515 to get that share, according to Ward.

Additional revenues of $729,000 the schools received from the state were used to reduce school assessments to the towns in the district, Ward said. “We’re minus 2 percent on our assessments to the towns.”

While residents will vote on the question of how much to spend in the coming school year, the issues underlying the struggle to arrive at a budget that meets the needs of the school district and satisfies those who are critical of the demands made on them will no doubt continue.

VOICES FROM RSU 9

Cherieanne Harrison

Wilton, school board member

“We have a community with many residents who are close or below the poverty line and they are just trying to protect the small income they have and be able to afford their taxes. But the rest of that picture is that we also have schools that are all dealing with increasing needs. In order to meet these needs, expenses have to go up.

“We have lots of active community members which is a really positive thing. Unfortunately there will be a lot of people suffering on either side, no matter how the vote turns out. I think the only solution is to move this discussion to a state level, so that we can avoid pitting our community members against each other.

“Everyone wants our kids to succeed, but they can’t do that if they have a negative start in life. These issues are very personal for people. It’s about either their children or their finances, and a lot of people are feeling personally attacked on both sides.

“I don’t see a positive outcome from Tuesday. We will either lose a lot of progress for our schools, or a lot of people living in poverty will feel even more removed from their community. No one will be voting lightly, and it won’t be a great success for anyone.”

Joni James

Starks, mother of two

“I think there is a lot of misunderstanding and mistrust of the leadership in our community, which is giving room for a lot of assumptions to be made and false information to run rampant. The people I know on the board are very reasonable people. They not only have the kids’ best interest in mind, but they also understand that there needs to be a balance with the needs of the community. I don’t know if there is a middle ground in this situation.

“People’s taxes will not go up because of the school budget. If anything they will go down. If they do go up, it’s not because of the school. It’s because the valuation of their town has gone up. I understand that people look at the numbers and they look huge, but someone did it for them when they were in school.

“People have a right to question authority, but they also need to step back and take a look at the facts. This isn’t something that should be taken lightly.

“For some seniors, who rely on college scholarships from sports or music or theater, this is a question of whether or not they will be able to pay for school. We are a music family, and I see music as the heartbeat of this community. So that is where we would feel it the most if this proposed budget passes.

“People in Starks get it. We just left the Madison school district, so we know what it is like to be in an underfunded district that has very little to offer kids.”

Chrissy Currier

Wilton, mother of three

“We moved here two weeks ago, although I grew up in Farmington and we have family in the area. We always wanted to get back here, and a huge push for us was the school district. My kid gets to play violin this year, and she wouldn’t have had that opportunity in our last district.

“We have quickly grown to love this family-friendly community, so this all just makes me sad. We came here for the great opportunities for our kids, so it’s frustrating to be back in the same situation we were in.”

Griffin Mayhew

Mt. Blue High School senior, school board student representative

“What I’m seeing as a student going to board meetings is a lot of anger on both sides. When people moved to flat-fund the budget, I had to come to terms with the reality of the situation.

“If this budget passes, it could do a lot of bad things for our school. Programming that is important to all different students could be cut. Theater, teachers’ jobs, class size — they will all be affected.

“A lot of the numbers in the budget are things we can’t control, like seasonal increases, or needs in the district that we can’t just ignore. I think sometimes there’s a notion that we as a district waste money, but from what I’ve seen that isn’t true. We are doing a good job right now satisfying the wants of the student body and putting money into things that make our district and student life better. Kids across the district would be affected by larger class sizes. Student-teacher bonds might be ruined if teachers get fired.”

Bob Millay

Chesterville, former educator, administrator

“The problem is that there are people struggling — taxpayers — who have asked repeatedly for several years now to have the budget reduced, but it’s fallen on deaf ears. There are a lot of people who resent the big expensive school they built. They call it the Taj Mahal and whatnot. We have asked and asked for something to be done, and all we’ve gotten is a slap in the face with huge administrative raises two years ago. Everything we’ve asked for has been ignored.

“That’s not the only problem though. The lack of education is appalling. It’s deteriorating. Kids can’t write. They can’t do simple math. My best source of information is from the students, and from what I hear it’s horrendous. We are not getting the product we are paying for.

“The other day I saw a school bus go to New Sharon with one kid on it. I guess these are shuttles for kids who need extra help or for discipline or sports. But parents could pool together to get kids home. They could offer the shuttle on certain days.

“There is a middle ground for this budget. I wanted the special education budget to be left alone. I have a special place for that. But people are just so angered by all of this.

“The school is not being frugal by building four brand new tennis courts for a team with three kids on it. I hear stories about teachers playing movies in their classes three or four times a week, while they sit behind their desks on their computers. The stories are upsetting.

“Bruce Mochamer was a good man. I think he left because he was just plain sick of what was going on up above. It’s not appropriate what is going on.

“Taxes aren’t my issue. I’m standing up for those who can’t, and I want to fix what has happened to education. Our teachers are the backbone. But we need good ones. And for them to use the students like pawns, scaring them that sports will be cut. That just isn’t right.”

Charlie Webster

Farmington, Franklin County commissioner

“I just think this has reached the point where people are really, really upset. The feeling we have gotten from the last few board meetings is that if you are against the budget, you’re ignorant, you don’t care about kids, and your opinion doesn’t matter. Mr. Ward doesn’t care about our opinions. Other schools in this region live at this budget, so why can’t we?

“I’ve been in local politics over 35 years, and I’ve never seen so much anger from the people. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t support teachers, but when Mr. Ward gives a new principal a higher salary, it’s showing he just doesn’t care about what we’re saying. The people aren’t being heard, the blue collar workers. These are good people who have worked all their lives and are on fixed incomes. People are saying ‘we need to educate our kids,’ but we also need to be able to heat our homes. Mr. Ward and the board have a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude and that’s why people are so angry.”

Bill Reid

New Sharon, former school board member

“What I’ve seen in the last eight years is that the budget has gone crazy. That didn’t happen when I was there. This new regime is full steam ahead, and the meeting last Tuesday was very refreshing, full of people who understand the problem.

“I just can’t figure it out. They say that the special education budget had to increase because it’s mandated by the state, but the government gives money for them to do this, and we haven’t seen any of that. I just can’t figure it out.

“The people there on Tuesday were not people affiliated with the schools. These are farmers and mechanics — working people.

“This constant drive of increased taxes is hurting a lot of people. This ‘think of the kids’ argument is ad misericordiam. It’s a diversion. They’re trying to get people weeping just to take away from the fact that the budget keeps going up relentlessly and just doesn’t stop.

“The board and the administration is tone deaf to the people. They live in a bubble, and they don’t realize that most people at that meeting are outside of that bubble. The board members don’t pay attention to the people they are supposed to be representing. They don’t get paid enough to get into the guts of the system of the budget. They can’t do the research needed and so they don’t understand it. The board just mirrors what the administration tells them. The administration is just out for itself, not for the citizens, not for the taxpayers.”

Jesse Sillanpaa

Industry, father of two

“A few of the problems I know of is the lack of transparency of the school board. I’ve emailed and called, and eventually had to call DOE to try to get info about what I have the right to ask for and what not, as far as budget info from the school. At that point they were willing to send me the info. That’s one thing I see.

“There’s stuff going on in the school that I don’t agree with that has nothing to do with the budget, but does have to do with some of the money spent. Some teachers I feel and other parents feel shouldn’t be there. I have yet to have anyone speak to me about that.

“Some of the other problems I see is some of the people don’t understand the special needs part of the budget. I don’t have an issue with that. I was there the other night to try to flat fund certain parts of the budget. I was not in favor of cutting from the special needs budget. I have friends from kindergarten and middle school and on that have kids that need special education. That should be funded in my opinion.

“I don’t want this budget to pass, but if it doesn’t, I hope the school board and administrators see our side without just thinking we’re trying to hurt the kids. When they keep saying that, it’s superficial. They’re just using it as a scare tactic. The sports boosters and parents make up the majority of the money for that.

My daughter has been in orchestra for a few years and we pay for her instrument. A lot of what they are saying they’re going to cut is false information. I’d like to see them start to listen to the people in the public on the way we want our kids educated.

“I understand a lot of towns won’t see a tax increase this year, but 3 in the 10 still will. We’ve been trying for a few years to get this point across, and it’s too bad that it’s come down to what happened Tuesday night.

“I do believe they can find a way to function on last year’s budget. The admin areas weren’t outrageous with the increases, but there are areas that need more transparency. A lot of people want to see that. The electric bill seems unnecessary.

“There are a few of us in the now yes group who are being spiteful, and I think it’s because they haven’t been listened to for so long. Attitudes change when we start feeling like we’re listened to and aren’t just told what to deal with. The taxpayers appointed the board to listen to us, and I think people are just trying to get them to do that.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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