New RSU 58 board tackles financial issues

KINGFIELD — A new, larger board of directors will try to resolve many of the daunting problems that have plagued RSU 58 for more than a decade.

Valerie Tucker photo

Superintendent Brenda Stevens, right, swears in six new members of the RSU 58 school board Thursday night. Standing, from left, are David Masterman of Avon, Faith Richard of Phillips, Julie Talmadge and Sarah Byrne, both of Kingfield, Rupert Pratt and Alan Smith, both of Strong. Seated at the table is director Kim Jordan. The seventh new member has not been officially appointed by Phillips selectmen.

Issues include the decline in subsidy revenues at the state level, extensive renovation costs for the 40-year-old Mt. Abram High School, busing costs, and the financial obligations to keep three elementary school buildings open in towns that pay more than half of their tax dollars to support the district.

The new system of weighted votes, based on the population of each town, gives the four Phillips directors 276 votes; Kingfield's four representatives 268 votes, Strong's four board members 328 votes, and Avon's two directors 124 votes.

Kingfield Selectman Heather Moody addressed directors, saying she had solicited her constituents for opinions and responses indicated impatience with the board's habit of "kicking the can down the road." The Kingfield Independent School Committee needed to gather only 36 signatures to start the district withdrawal process. She also asked directors to find ways to generate district revenues and to pay more attention to the comments of audience members.

"We need to talk about state money and state funding," she said. "Going to the state money tree just isn't going to do it."

At their August meeting, directors appointed a building committee to research options to combine the student populations for costs savings and efficiency. Phillips director Dan Worcester also has been gathering data for restructuring added a bit of levity to the meeting, saying he'd been studying the numbers with Finance Director Luci Milewski and Superintendent Brenda Stevens. He'd hoped to present a clear plan for saving money while keeping all grades in the district.

"It's not coming out the way I want," he said, drawing laughter from the other board members.

Worcester said options to send either grades 10-12 or grades nine to 12 to Mt. Blue High School in Farmington would require the district to absorb a new set of costs, and Regional School Unit 58 also has a large percentage of students from unorganized territories and Carrabassett Valley. If the high school closes, the remaining district structure will no longer have that income, and some families would consider moving from the district if their children have to go to a high school outside the district after attending their town elementary school for nine years. Directors agreed the quality of education for children is a primary goal, but they needed to bring down costs.

"How low is low enough?" Edwards asked. "What's affordable?"

Property owners are bearing the load of higher costs, and some can't afford to pay more. Phillips resident and Mt. Blue High School secretary Laura White said she would not support a plan that required her to pay property taxes in a district without a high school. The issues aren't centered solely around saving money, she said, even though her own taxes had doubled.

"When I moved here 15 years ago, my taxes were $451," she said. "I got my tax bill this year, and it was a little over $1,100."

Former school board member Mike Pond of Strong said people move to the unorganized territories, and the state Department of Education does not pay their education costs beyond a tuition rate that is inadequate and leaves taxpayers in Strong, Phillips, Kingfield and Avon to pick up the rest through property tax increases. Tuition reimbursement at the state level averages $8,000 to $10,000 per year, but that does not include costs for many programs and services, such as sports and extracurricular activities.

"Everyone needs to contact their representatives, Sen. Tom Saviello and Rep. Russell Black and tell them the state is shifting all the burden onto the taxpayers," Edwards said.

To speed the decision-making process, the board agreed to double its number of meetings. The building committee will meet again at 5 p. m. Tuesday, Sept. 17, at the Phillips Elementary School.

The full board will meet at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 26 at Mt. Abram High School.

The Kingfield Independent School Committee will hold an informational meeting at 7 p.m. on Sept. 30 at Webster Hall to share ideas about withdrawing from the school district.

All meetings are open to the public, and directors and committees welcome townspeople who want to become more involved in the decision-making process.

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Sharon Dudley's picture

Laura White

is the secretary at Mt. Abram High School, not Mt. Blue High School.

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