After directors got an earful from residents at a special Board of Directors meeting Tuesday, April 30, they agreed to put a budget proposal totaling $33,486,606 before voters next month.

More than 30 people attended the meeting at Belfast Area High School, which spanned more than two hours and included comments from the public that carried starkly different messages — some urged the Board to preserve the quality of education, while others pleaded with directors to make the budget more manageable for taxpayers who are already struggling.

The proposed package for the 2013-14 school year brings an increase of 12.9 percent to the eight towns remaining in Regional School Unit 20, given that Frankfort will begin its exit from the district later this year.

While RSU 20 Business Manager Brian McFarland noted that the proposed package represents an increase of about $118,000 on the expenditure side, the figure also reflects about $1.7 million worth of cuts, including stipends for all middle school extracurricular activities, all athletic stipends at Belfast Area High School, the school resource officer position at BAHS, all elementary school library ed techs, two full-time regular custodians and all substitute custodians. The proposed reductions would also eliminate a science teacher and an English teacher at BAHS, and a physical education teacher from Searsport District Middle School.

"Clearly it's the revenue side that's killing us," said RSU 20 Board Chairman Tony Bagley.

Some in attendance, like Charlie Grey of Belfast, pressed the Board to put the needs of children over the financial concerns of the taxpayers.

"I elected you to take care of the children in this community," said Grey. "… We're talking about their education. I think you're doing a disservice to the community itself."

Another Belfast resident in the audience disagreed with Grey's comments, expressing concern that if the Board were to put back most or all of the proposed cuts to staff and programs, there would be well educated children going home to find padlocks on their doors because their parents couldn't afford their property taxes.

On the other side of the argument, one parent of a child at Drinkwater Elementary in Northport said she was willing to pay higher taxes if it meant maintaining the quality of education in the district's schools.

Some parents and RSU 20 staff spoke about the proposed reduction of library ed techs, noting it would mean the library would be available to students at the high school for fewer hours and there would be fewer people to assist with the everyday operations at the elementary schools.

Superintendent Brian Carpenter said that staff reductions would mean it would be up to classroom teachers to accompany their classes to the library. Carpenter said there were some instances where library aides were used in non-library-related capacities, such as monitoring study halls.

Joyce Scott, bookkeeper for the town of Morrill, said many residents in her town are already struggling to keep up with their taxes and encouraged the Board to find deeper cuts. She said because Frankfort students will be exiting the district to go to RSU 22 this coming year, and because the district is proposing a single bus run in Searsport, she expected to see "another million" shaved off those costs. That kind of reduction, she added, would make up for the estimated $1.3 million in lost student subsidy because of the withdrawal of Frankfort students from the district.

"I'm just desperate about how to help people pay their taxes and keep their houses," she said.

Director Sharon Catus of Stockton Springs noted that her town pays about $2.2 million as its share of the budget and it will no longer have an elementary school because of the plan to convert the building into an early childhood development center to house 3- and 4-year-old programs. While she said she understood the concerns about the potential loss of library ed techs and other teaching staff, she reminded the residents of what her town stands to lose this coming year.

"I have a daughter who cannot enter that school to be educated after June," she said.

After a lengthy discussion involving the Board and the public about cuts that could possibly be restored in the proposed budget, Director Denise Dakin of Stockton Springs urged the board to either make the cuts as the superintendent recommended or prepare to consider a motion to reopen the Stockton Springs Elementary School to students in that town.

"If you're not going to cut where the superintendent says to cut, I want Stockton Springs Elementary School back in [the budget]," she said.

RSU 20 Director and Chairman of the Finance Committee Gerry Reid said the combination of declining revenues from the state and federal government and increases in costs such as health insurance have put the Board in a tough position in terms of building a reasonable budget this year.

"They're all ugly alternatives," he told the residents.

Reid said the Board is now at a point where it needs direction from the public in terms of what the district can survive without.

"We can't do any more without direction," he said. "This is as reasonable an option as we can come up with."

Reid said the district pitched a more drastic idea for cutting costs a few years ago that included moving to one high school and one middle school, and since it was "unpopular" the administration abandoned the idea.

"But down the road it's inevitable, that's going to have to happen," he said.

Carpenter told residents if they wanted to see more staff cuts, the district runs the risk of carrying no more than the basic academic programs — reading, writing and arithmetic — and those aren't enough to provide the kind of education students need to succeed. In that case, he said, families would likely look elsewhere to obtain an education for their students, meaning the district will continue to lose state revenue in the future.

"The ones that are going to suffer are the kids," he said.