BELFAST, Maine — Regional School Unit 71’s proposed $25.7 million budget for the next year sailed intact through Tuesday night’s district budget meeting, despite the expected property tax hike it will mean for the five member communities of Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Searsmont and Swanville.
School board members said the proposed budget aims to reduce districtwide administration costs, address deferred building maintenance and restore several previously cut positions. About 80 area residents came to vote at the meeting at the Troy Howard Middle School gymnasium. After it ended, board Chairman David Crabiel said he was pleased.
“We had really good support for the schools and a lot of support for what the board has done,” he said.
Voters in the five communities decided at the polls last November to withdraw from RSU 20, the district that also included Northport, Searsport and Stockton Springs. Northport voters also decided to leave the district on Election Day but opted against joining forces with the other five towns and created its own school district.
If the RSU 71 budget passes next week’s validation referendum, it would mean a 10 percent increase over the five town’s portion of last year’s RSU 20 school budget. That won’t be easy for property taxpayers to handle, several people emphasized at the district budget meeting. Overall, the roughly 1,600-student district will pay nearly $16,000 per student for next year, including the cost for regular instruction, special education instruction, facilities and maintenance, debt service and more.
School budget skeptics present at the budget meeting said that amount is more than nearby communities pay to educate their youth. It also apparently is much more than the statewide average education cost, which was $10,021 per student in 2012-2013, the most recent year listed by the Maine Department of Education.
After the meeting, interim superintendent Bruce Mailloux said he hopes voters will be willing to “just give the district a year.” Next year, the school board will look for more cost saving areas, and voters should see a difference with next year’s proposed budget.
Randy Place, the second selectman for the small town of Morrill, said the budget will place a heavy burden on his community’s 650 property taxpayers. According to the school budget worksheet provided by RSU 71, Morrill’s local appropriation for education will jump from $768,201 to $845,745 from the last fiscal year to the next one — a 10 percent jump. Over the last five years, he said taxpayers have seen a $300,000 increase in school appropriation.
“This could be very well the first time in the history of Morrill we cannot meet our school commitment,” Place said Tuesday night. “Really look at this before you vote. There’s got to be some cuts somewhere. We can’t sustain this kind of budget. We want to, but we can’t.”
However, attendees handily voted down efforts to decrease funding for nearly every article voted on at the budget meeting. Maylinda Boynton, a recent Belfast Area High School graduate, said she came to support the restoration of a music teaching position at the high school, a language position at the middle school, elementary art and co-curricular activities.
“Students will be able to benefit,” she said. “I think it’s a step in the right direction. I’m happy with the decisions they’ve made.”
The RSU 71 budget validation referendum will be held Wednesday, June 24, at municipal polling places for the communities of Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Searsmont and Swanville.