SULLIVAN — The proposed Regional School Unit 24 (RSU 24) budget for the 2018-2019 school year gained initial approval at a district budget meeting May 30.
An audience of about 30 people gathered in the gym at Sumner Memorial High School and passed all of the budget articles (the spending plan has a bottom line of $16,586,096) by wide margins. The closest vote came on Article 16, which sought $3.5 million in additional local funds beyond what the state funding model calls for. That article passed 23-2, while others carried by margins as wide as 28-0.
The budget now goes to the polls on Tuesday, June 12, when RSU 24 voters will be asked whether they want to give it final approval. RSU 24 consists of nine towns: Eastbrook, Franklin, Gouldsboro, Mariaville, Sorrento, Steuben, Sullivan, Waltham and Winter Harbor.
Superintendent Michael Eastman presented and explained the budget to voters at the May 30 meeting. State laws and other requirements around the budget, he said, mean that “school finance is about as dry as it gets, and can be as complicated as open-heart surgery sometimes.”
Five budget workshops were held earlier in the year, Eastman said, and the RSU 24 School Board gave its approval to the budget earlier in May. The bottom line is up a total of $458,176 (2.8 percent), but local taxpayers will not absorb all of that burden. They will be asked for $262,823 more than they paid last year, an increase of 2.11 percent.
Eastman outlined several factors leading to the budget increase. Among them, he said, was an increase in employee compensation and benefits, which are set to go up $238,275 from this school year to the coming year. All of the school system’s collective bargaining units will see wage increases of between 2 and 2.5 percent in 2018-19, while health insurance premiums are going up by 8.65 percent.
In separate articles, voters approved putting $100,000 into the RSU 24 Major Capital School Construction Project account and establishing a new capital improvement reserve account that will also be funded with $100,000.
The first of those two articles involves money that will be used “to pay for pre-construction expenses” associated with the building of a new Sumner school complex. Eastman said the majority of those expenses, if not all of them, will eventually be reimbursed by the state.
The new capital reserve improvement account will be used as needed to make major capital repairs (such as a new school roof) around the district.
There were few questions from the audience during the May 30 meeting, mainly seeking clarification on where money was coming from or what figure was being voted on in a particular article.
There was, however, a bit of parliamentary procedure drama. Each of the nine RSU towns needed to send a municipal employee to the meeting to be able to check in voters from their respective communities. Eight of the towns did so, but there was no one present from Gouldsboro.
There was initially concern that this meant Gouldsboro voters at the meeting would not be allowed to vote, because there was no way of officially knowing whether they were actually registered voters in that town. Moderator Fred Ehrlenchach, a Trenton selectman, came up with a solution: allow Gouldsboro residents to make contested votes.
On show-of-hands votes, Ehrlenbach would first ask for those in favor and then those opposed, as is normally done. He then asked to see hands raised from contested in favor and contested opposed (only Gouldsboro residents voted in this portion).
On written ballots, Gouldsboro voters in the audience marked their ballot, put it in an envelope and signed their name. It was then brought forward to the ballot clerks, who checked to see that the ballot was marked (but did not count the vote) and then sealed.
Ehrlenbach said at the end of the meeting that the ballots would be delivered to the Gouldsboro town office, where staff could verify whether the people who signed their names were, in fact, registered voters in that town. If so, they would tally the votes — there were only several voters present from Gouldsboro — and pass the numbers along to the RSU 24 central office so they could be added to the official tally.
With the lopsided margins recorded during the meeting, the numbers from Gouldsboro would not affect the outcome once added to the overall numbers. But had the votes on any of the articles been closer, they could potentially have made a difference one way or another. Ehrlenbach said using the contested vote system allowed the May 30 meeting to go forward and Gouldsboro residents to vote there without putting the overall vote at risk due to possible ineligible voters.
He also had a little fun with the system. At the end of the meeting, when a motion to adjourn was made, he asked first for those in favor and then those opposed. Then he asked for contested in favor and contested opposed. There was, as it turned out, no contest: voters were ready to go home.