FAIRFIELD — Residents from Albion, Benton, Clinton and Fairfield approved a $27.12 million budget for Maine School Administrative District 49 at a meeting on Thursday evening.

The budget, which was shot down twice in the last two months, reflects a $250,834 decrease from the last approved budget on July 9 and a $36,218 decrease from the original budget that was presented at a meeting in May, making this the lowest proposed budget the board has presented yet.

School board member Katie Flood, center, holds her head in her hands during a Maine School Administrative District 49 budget vote at Lawrence Junior High School in Fairfield on Thursday. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

The board was able to reduce the budget significantly by rearranging a special education position between two schools and aligning the budget with changes in salaries and personnel benefits for the upcoming year and with the cost of natural gas, the rate of which is anticipated to be less this school year.

The budget’s articles on regular instruction and special education raised concerns, while the other 13 articles garnered minimal discussion.

Former school board member Shelley Rudnicki, who resigned with Caroline Toto-Lawrence and Tim Martin at a Fairfield Town Council meeting on Aug. 10, made her way to the microphone to raise her concerns about the regular instruction article.

“The May 14 budget, which was originally posed and sent to taxpayers had regular education at $10.8 million. What did the addition of $118,000 go towards?” Rudnicki said. “And why haven’t we considered reducing at least one position in the Albion schools. Fairfield has nearly 25 kids to one teacher where Albion has 8 or 9.”

Vice Chairwoman Jenny Boyden answered.

“We didn’t work off (the) number that was amended from that meeting; we went from what was originally proposed, not the amendment,” Boyden said.

Boyden also explained that additional costs reflected the addition of reading recovery positions as well as shifts in positions that were previously funded by Title 1.

Rudnicki motioned to amend the article by $100,000, which was seconded by Toto-Lawrence.

Rudnicki’s motion was defeated when only she, Toto-Lawrence and Toto-Lawrence’s husband, Fairfield Town Council Member Peter Lawrence, supported the article.

The article for special education was the next point of contention for Rudnicki and a fellow unnamed citizen.

“Once again please explain the differences between what the original May 14 budget came at to what it is now,” Rudnicki said. “It’s not a decrease like you’re trying to tell us; it’s actually an increase. … It just seems like we’re playing games here.”

Shawn Knox, school board chair of School Administrative District 49, opens a meeting addressing the budget at Lawrence Junior High School in Fairfield on Thursday. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Boyden responded by explaining that the decrease the board is talking about is from the last approved budget on July 9, not the one from May 14.

After Rudnicki asked about the district’s enrollment numbers, Board Member Kara Kugelmyer chimed in.

“I don’t know what this has to do with special education. I don’t understand the argument,” Kugelmyer said.

“The argument about our taxes continuing to go up, and you have not done anything but play games with this budget,” Rudnicki said.

According to documents provided by Board Chairman Shawn Knox, the mil rate increase for each town is: 0.82 for Albion; 0.91 for Benton; 0.82 for Clinton; and 0.66 for Fairfield.

Another resident questioned the board about the increases to special education, which came out to be around $115,480.

“A lot of administrators said they didn’t have adequate staff,” Boyden said. “That was a primary concern so we added staff. We had two special education teachers and five techs added between May and July… So a substantial portion of the budget increases is salary since that was the main concern.”

The board made additional changes from July to when it approved the budget on Aug. 12 by shifting one of the special education teachers from Albion Elementary to Lawrence Junior High School. Knox said this wouldn’t disrupt the students of Albion.

“To address the previous concern, I want to applaud the board for taking the time to make sure we have an additional teacher,” Benjamin Kent, a mathematics teacher at Lawrence High School, said. “Our students are in dire need. … Some of our students were supposed to have one-on-one ed tech help, and they were going without and they were suffering. It (the budget) might go up but it’s needed. … We’re all going to have to accept the fact this piece of the budget is going up a significant amount, but it’s for the benefit of the students.”

Community members of Maine School Administrative District 49 gather at Lawrence Junior High School in Fairfield on Thursday for a new budget vote. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

After Kent’s comment the article was approved by voters.

The remaining articles were approved with no discussion and the meeting adjourned less than an hour after it began.

The revised budget goes to a referendum on Sept. 12. If not passed, it would be the third failed referendum since June.

Voters rejected a $27.42 million budget in June with 586 “no” votes to 325 “yes” votes and again defeated a $27.36 budget in July 290- 262.

The two failed referendums come after an unsteady year which included resignations from seven teachers, the superintendent and Lawrence High School’s assistant and head principals along with three board members from Fairfield.

The tenure of former Superintendent Dr. Reza Namin, whose resignation took effect on Aug. 2, was rife with controversy in great part due to his divisive restructuring plan that eventually cost the district $417,665 in administrative buyouts.

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