Nearly 90 residents from the eight Regional School Unit 20 towns turned out at Troy Howard Middle School and passed a budget totaling $35,565,772.35 during the district wide budget validation meeting Thursday night, May 29.

Residents disposed of the warrant in just over an hour.

RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter directed voters to pages in the budget information packet that illustrated the decline in revenue from the state since 2009, as well as the steady decline of students enrolled in the district over the last five years.

"We're losing students, and that means we're losing subsidy," said Carpenter.

Carpenter also explained that state valuations have decreased for some towns, including the city of Belfast. While that means the state traditionally gives more money to areas with lower valuations, residents must also understand that the minimum mill rate expected under the state's funding formula, known as Essential Programs and Services, has increased from 6.69 in 2009-10 up to 8.10 for 2014-15.

"It means the local has to raise more in order to get the state subsidy," he said. "If we don't raise the money to get the state subsidy, we don't get it."

Overall, in the last six years, Carpenter said the district has seen a decline in state subsidy to the tune of more than $2 million.

In a letter Carpenter drafted in advance of Thursday's meeting, he explained the proposed figure of $35.5 million reflects the return of some items that were cut from last year's budget such as supplies and middle school level co-and extra-curricular stipends. The district also saw a 9.5 percent increase in health insurance costs—a portion of which will be paid by district employees—and a 6.5 percent jump in the cost of property insurance.

Carpenter said the finance committee had initially returned a second bus run for students residing in the former School Administrative District 56 towns, but in an effort to offset the loss of revenue and increased costs, the committee opted to pull that item out of the proposal before taking the package to the full board for approval. In addition, the committee reduced the contingency line, which gave the district a total savings of more than $400,000.

"As you look at this budget tonight, as it states in my letter, there is no extra," he said, noting that the reductions made for this year's proposal do not impact students or programs. Any additional money voters may have wished to remove from the budget, he said, would "hurt students."

"And if you want to cut more, we're cutting programs," he said.

Article 1, which called for the approval of $13,194,627.04 to cover regular instruction (including pre-K-12 salaries, benefits and the restoration of $210,061.05 for supplies), prompted questions about student-teacher rations in the district.

Resident Jean Dube said she had information suggesting the district employs 22.54 teachers over what is outlined in EPS, and she said she was concerned to see that between the two high schools, there are 65 classes with 10 students or less.

Resident Joyce Scott said the district had made a considerable step toward moving closer to the EPS ratio this year, as the previous budget funded 33 teachers over what is outlined in EPS. She asked if the district could back out another $200,000 from the contingency line, but Carpenter said that would leave the district without a financial safety net.

"There will be nothing if something happens," he said.

Article 4, which included restored funding for middle school sports and leadership stipends, generated discussion about volunteer coaches versus paid coaches.

"It has come to our attention that with volunteer coaches is inequity," said Carpenter. In addition, volunteer coaches pose a bigger liability to the district than a paid coach, as the district can dictate those individuals to attend trainings in first aid, concussions and CPR.

Resident Jeff Davis asked if there had been any incidents involving volunteer coaches in the last year, and Carpenter said THMS track and field was not offered to the 120 or so students who wished to participate due to supervision issues. Carpenter said some coaches agreed to stay on this past year without the stipends, but many indicated they would not do the job, sans the stipend, in the upcoming year.

"My son, a middle school student, did cross country with a volunteer coach," said a man in the audience. "He did not do track, but would dearly loved to have done it."

At one point in the meeting, a resident sought clarification on the 9.5-percent increase in health insurance for district employees.

"Is any of that passed on to the employees?" she said.

RSU 20 Finance Director Chandra Hodgdon said depending on the type of plan an employee has, they must pay a portion of the increased premiums.

The woman said she thought the listing of the 9.5 percent figure was a "misrepresentation" because residents were not getting a true picture of the projected increase.

"The budget is based on what the employer will be paying," said Hodgdon.

During discussions about the transportation line in Article 8, Carpenter explained that a single bus run cannot be done in the former SAD 34 towns due to the geographic makeup of that part of the district.

"We would need six more buses," said Carpenter.

Article 11, which was listed in the warrant as "all other expenditures," showed a 246-percent hike from the previous year (from $70,000 last year up to $242,000 last year). Carpenter explained the increase is necessary to fully fund the food service program because revenues for that program have been underestimated in recent years. Also, the district has not increased the price of meals and the additional money is needed to offset costs.

"Now we have to pay for what we haven't paid for over time," said Carpenter.

Carpenter added that as students move into middle and high school, they are not completing their paperwork for free or reduced lunch, which also impacts the program's budget.

"We're losing that revenue," said Carpenter.

"Can you not feed them?" said Scott, referring to students who do not complete the paperwork and cannot pay for their meals.

"No, we cannot deny anybody a meal," said Carpenter.

"Perhaps it's time for parents to start feeding their own children," said resident Amy Fradel.

RSU 20 Food Service Director Perley Martin said this is the first year he had been asked to get involved with the expense and revenue side of his department. Despite the decreased participation in the program and the revenue shortfall, Martin said voters could likely expect to see a figure that is less than the amount listed in the article this year.

"There will still be issues, but not to this extent," said Carpenter.

Throughout the meeting, some directors voted against some of the articles. RSU 20 Director Stephen Hopkins said he did so because he felt the district should have pursued the school consolidation concepts, which the board put on ice earlier this year after all eight towns indicated interest in withdrawing from the RSU.