Board chairman: 'We don't know which way to go'
Belfast — After the proposed Regional School Unit budget failed for the second time last week, the RSU 20 board chairman said directors are seeking feedback from voters in the eight towns in terms of what residents want to see in a third budget recommendation.
Board chairman Tony Bagley told The Republican Journal Tuesday, Aug. 6, since the proposed $33.4 million budget failed in all eight towns during the vote Tuesday, July 30, Director Valerie Mank of Searsmont has posted a survey for RSU 20 voters at surevymonkey.com. Through the results of that survey, which allow a space for participants to specify why they either do or do not support that budget proposal, Bagley said the board hopes to get an idea of what kind of budget proposal voters will support.
“We don't know which way to go,” said Bagley.
The budget package the board proposed in May totaled $33.5 million, but by the end of the four-hour budget validation meeting at Troy Howard Middle School, residents restored about half of the $1.7 million worth of cuts the directors proposed. The restored funds totaled $856,010.
In the latest budget pitch, the board came back to residents during a validation meeting July 22 with a proposed $33.8 million budget that was reduced by residents by $363,563 to a final figure of $33,459,979.
Voters in all eight towns rejected both proposals at the polls, and Bagley said the board is now reaching out to voters who do not or cannot attend meetings and have not directly expressed their feelings about why they chose to either approve or reject the latest budget package.
Bagley said RSU 20 is not the only district facing that pull between those who are willing to fund education at any cost and those who are struggling to pay their property taxes.
“It's happening all over the place,” said Bagley.
But Bagley said he has been talking to residents about the increasing difficulties the district is facing to make ends meet for the last four years, particularly given the down turn in state and federal subsidies and increases in insurance costs.
“We've got to start with little steps,” said Bagley.
He noted neighboring districts like RSU 3, Rockland-based RSU 13 and the Bangor School Department have all made small cuts in recent years to soften the blow for the taxpayers.
“Here, it's the status-quo,” he said. “... It's caught up with us; something has got to give.”
Bagley said spending more money on education is not the answer, either.
“Just throwing money at it isn't going to make education better,” he said. “With a $34 million budget, it shouldn't be an issue, we should have everything we need. We've got to somehow draw the line.”
Bagley said he recognizes that residents in the district value various aspects of education differently — some may feel the district would do a disservice without art programs at all levels, while others feel strongly about keeping a second secretary in two Belfast area schools — and it's up to the board to create a budget that will be palatable to most voters.
“There's got to be a happy medium,” Bagley said.
But Bagley said it will be a challenge, in part due to that diversity, and also because Waldo County is the second poorest county in the state. At the last Finance Committee meeting, Bagley said the board learned every town was behind on its school payments by at least a month, and one town was behind three months.
At budget meetings, some residents have advocated for spending the money on staff and programs because it is cheaper in the long run to provide our children with a great education, but Bagley said that school of thought has led to another problem for the district — decreasing enrollments.
“That's one of the reasons that student population is dwindling. People can't afford to move here with families,” he said.
Belfast, Searsport and Stockton Springs are seeing a steady decline in families with children, while towns like Waldo, Brooks, Searsmont and Morrill are seeing increases in school aged children. Families living in the RSU sometimes move to outlying towns within the district, but sometimes they move into towns situated in a neighboring district, meaning less state subsidy for RSU 20.
If the budget fails at the polls for a third time, Bagley said the board will again return to the drawing board. That scenario will play out again and again until voters pass a budget at the polls.
And with each vote coming with a price tag of about $15,000, Bagley said the cost of the last two referendums could have paid for a position within the district.
“It's taking money away from the students,” said Bagley.
Until voters do pass a budget at the polls, Bagley said the district must operate under the package voters passed at the conclusion of the last budget validation meeting on July 22. That budget impacted rt programs, the resource officer at Belfast Area High School and stipends for middle school extracurricular activities, according to previously published reports.
If voters do not finalize a new budget prior to the start of school, Bagley said that might pose a whole new set of challenges. If the new budget funds positions or programs that were excluded from the previous budget, Bagley said the district may be faced with trying to hire back staff that may have already found other positions.
And given the lengthy budget process that has had residents considering various staff cuts, it has been an emotional roller coaster for those staff members whose positions have been on and off the chopping block this summer.
And the towns are in a tough position now too, Bagley said, because they are waiting on the RSU to put out their final tax assessments.
“There's a lot more to it than a position here and a position there,” he said. “There's a lot more at stake.”
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Tanya has been a general news reporter in Waldo County since 1997.
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