Residents in RSU 20 approved the proposed $32.3 million budget for the 2010-2011 school year at the polls June 8, by a margin of almost 1,700 votes.

The final tally was 2,881 in favor and 1,195 opposed. Those voting yes were indicating their support for the budget that was given initial approval at a public budget meeting on June 2 at the Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast.

At that meeting, in the span of about 45 minutes, slightly more than four dozen residents gave their approval to the proposed budget.

The budget has a bottom line of $32,254,322, which school officials report is $1,274,835 (or 3.95 percent) less than the 2009-2010 budget.

In addition to the $32.3 million figure, RSU 20 will also be using $941,970 in federal stabilization funds — better known as stimulus money — in the 2010-2011 budget.

Business Manager Brian MacFarland explained the school system is required to keep that money separate from the rest of the budget, and also said RSU 20 will be using that money to help pay for its share of the Waldo County Technical Center’s operating costs.

Lee Woodward served as moderator for the June 2 meeting, and he shepherded residents through voting on the 20 budget articles. Several questions were asked of Superintendent Bruce Mailloux, regarding what had been cut from the budget and how those cuts had affected staffing levels.

There was some confusion over article 14, which dealt with additional local funds — money above and beyond what the state’s Essential Programs and Services model recommends is necessary for the operation of the school district.

The confusion arose because the article called for $2,900,627, then went on to say that amount “exceeds the State’s Essential Programs and Services allocation model by” $2,335,368. Why, some residents wondered, was there a $565,259 difference between the two figures?

Mailloux and MacFarland explained that if the state was funding the EPS part of the budget at 55 percent, as has been mandated previously, the district would be seeking to raise just the $2.3 million in additional local funds. The fact that the state is not meeting the 55-percent commitment — MacFarland estimated the number was closer to 45 percent — accounts for the $565,259 difference.

On a written-ballot vote, the $2.9 million in additional local funds was easily approved, 46 to 5.

Mailloux also noted that the share of the additional local funds figure for which the district is directly responsible decreased by about $1.2 million from the previous year.

“We’re making progress,” he said.

The part of the meeting that elicited the most audience participation was article 12, which outlined how much money each of the school system’s nine municipalities would be expected to raise and to appropriate for the budget.

Edwin Greeley of Morrill noted that his town’s total assessment is set to increase by almost 16 percent (15.85 percent, to be precise), “and that bothers me to some extent,” he said. Greeley said he was not criticizing RSU 20 officials, but wanted to know what factors were behind such an increase.

Mailloux said a similar question arose in Belfast last year, and the answer — in both cases — has to do with a community’s state-determined property valuation. Those valuations, Mailloux explained, are calculated using various pieces of data, including real estate figures from several years prior.

“Do I agree with the process? No,” said Mailloux. But, he said, that’s the way things work right now.

Greeley said he was concerned for people on fixed incomes, who are faced not only with rising property tax bills — increasing, in part, to cover school costs — but higher health care costs as well.

“The squeeze is on,” he said. “I wondered how long it would take, and now it is here.”

Greeley reiterated that his frustration was not with the school system, as he noted that local taxpayers were being asked for more money despite the cuts the school board made. He said his concern was with the way the state calculated its figures.

“I’d like to have a conversation with some of those folks,” he said. “Someone in the food chain is making those decisions, and I don’t know who they are.”

Mailloux said he believed many in the audience likely agreed with Greeley, and he said he hears similar concerns when he talks with residents anywhere in the district.

Following the meeting, Mailloux said he appreciated the support from those residents who showed up. He said he remains amazed that such a small number of people can approve a multi-million dollar budget, but said he hoped the low turnout was a sign that other people had few complaints and were happy with the budget presented by the board.

In addition to voting on the budget itself on June 8, voters were also asked if they wanted to continue the two-step budget approval process, which was ushered in along with the school consolidation law several years ago. Previously, the budget approval process consisted of just the public budget meeting.

Mailloux had previously urged voters to “consider this item carefully.” In his letter to RSU 20 residents that accompanied the school system’s budget proposal, Mailloux wrote:

“I would say that the turn-out for the referendum vote has been very small in each of the two previous years. Unless we are able to hold the referendum on a State election day, the expense of conducting a referendum is significant.”

Voters, by an almost two-to-one margin, opted to retain the newer, two-step process. The district-wide split on this question was 2,640 in favor of keeping the current process, while 1,345 voters favored returning to the old system.