Regional School Unit 56 Director Tammy Brown of Carthage, second from right, speaks during Tuesday’s board meeting at Dirigo High School in Dixfield. From left are board secretary and payroll/accounts payable employee Cathy Arsenault, Peru Directors Deb Mooney and William Hine, Brown, and Dixfield Director Bruce Ross. Marianne Hutchinson/Rumford Falls Times

DIXFIELD — The Regional School Unit 56 board of directors voted Tuesday night to back a fifth budget proposal of $12.72 million for 2019-20, $70,000 less than the spending plan voters rejected two weeks ago.

Measures taken to reach that goal include:

  • Naming Superintendent Pam Doyen principal of Dirigo High School, along with her other duties,  after Lisa Twomey gives her 90-day notice;
  • Eliminating a computer program mainly used at Dirigo Elementary School, but providing students access to other computer software programs; and
  • Using $33,835 from the Title 1 program to pay a teacher at Dirigo Elementary School, leaving no money for Title 1 summer school or for supplies for Title 1. The program provides supplemental funds for schools with the highest student concentrations of poverty so they can meet educational goals.

The latest budget plan is 3.5% more than the 2018-19 budget and represents an average increase of 11.2% in assessments for Canton, Carthage, Dixfield and Peru.

The numbers have dropped since the first budget of $13.27 million was rejected in June. It was 8% higher than the year before and raised town assessments an average of nearly 23 percent.

The second budget in July dropped to $12.9 million, a 5% increase and a 15.6% average increase in assessments. The third proposal in September of $12.9 million was a 5% increase and an average 15.6% increase in assessments. The fourth budget last month was $12.79 million with a 4.1% increase from the previous year and an average increase in assessments of 13.64 percent.

Residents in Regional School Unit 56 attend a budget workshop by the board of directors Tuesday night at Dirigo High School in Dixfield. The board voted to back a fifth budget for 2019-20. Marianne Hutchinson/Rumford Falls Times

Because the district did not have an approved budget to start the new fiscal year July 1, it has been legally operating at spending levels that represent about a 4% increase from 2018-19, Doyen said previously.

The cost of four budget referendums, declining tax revenue and increasing costs in some towns, and concern for quality education for the district’s 770 students were all raised at Tuesday night’s meeting.

Selectman Don Hutchins of Canton, where voters approved all four budget proposals, told the large crowd it costs the town “almost $1,000 to go and vote again.”

RSU 56 pays $2,000 each time a budget is brought to a vote.

Hutchins said one reason district voters withdrew from RSU 10 in Rumford 2016 was to gain local control.

“Now I’m hearing that it was all about the money,” he said. “Now we have the local control and I think we’re exercising it, but I don’t think we’re exercising it the right way.”

“The people that are suffering (from a lack of an approved budget) are not only our kids but also the rest of the community,” Hutchins said. “If we don’t give our kids an education where are we gonna be in 10 years? In five? All of this affects us; if we don’t invest in school, if we don’t spend the money, it will affect us in all of our towns, in everything.”

Hutchins encouraged the board to go for a 6%” increase because he heard some people at the meeting say that they would not approve the 3.5% increase because it is too low.

Carthage Selectman Jan Hutchinson spoke about the town’s decreasing valuation and increasing costs, reflecting voters’ rejection of the latest budget.

“Our concern is the fact that our town valuation is decreasing fast because of the wind tower depreciation,” Hutchinson said, referring to the 12-turbine Saddleback Ridge Wind Project.

“In 2020 the town will lose over $200,000 in taxes due to its lower valuation and the Franklin County budget has gone up $30,000 to 40,000 each year,” he said.

Carthage’s assessment under the latest proposal would go up 42.27%.

Hutchinson also said higher taxes were “really hurting some of the taxpayers that are on a fixed income.”

Peru Selectmen Raquel Welch and Linda Hebert presented their views on why a budget has not passed in their town.

“The town of Peru is getting a bad rap but if the numbers in the other towns weren’t as close as they are,  Peru wouldn’t be able to sway this vote,” Welch said. She also said she was getting “threatening phone calls that (say) I shouldn’t be speaking; or I shouldn’t be coming to these meetings.”

A majority of Peru residents are angry about the school budget, she said, “because things listed as cuts were put back in the budget. When they said they wanted cuts they wanted cuts, they didn’t want things put back.”

Doyen said sometimes the district uses funds carried over from the previous year’s budget to pay for items that are needed.

Hebert said some Peru residents felt the prior budget proposals weren’t “transparent,” and they didn’t vote for some of the higher budgets “because of the services that were in there that they didn’t agree with.”

She said she did not want to see positions cut and “believes in a quality education” but feels the district needs “to think outside the box and make some cuts that do not affect the education of our children.”

Selectman Peter Holman of Dixfield said selectmen decided Monday night that they did not want to make a statement of the school budget “because we do not want to interfere in this school budget in any way as to influence you on what you should do.

“Dixfield has been OK with what the school budget has put forth,” he said, other than when the same budget amount with a 5% increase was presented at two referendums. “I would say that one thing, I would not put the same thing out again, ever.”

TW Kelly Dirigo Middle School teacher Bethany Meehan-Poulin of Dixfield said district’s failure to pass a school budget was “heartbreaking.”

“These kids feel this,” she said, “they know what is happening, they know they are not being valued. I cannot in good conscience vote for a budget that further decimates things that are happening in our schools. One more staff, one more teacher, one more ed tech, I can’t support it,” Meehan-Poulin said.

Erin Wainwright of Canton, a teacher at Dirigo Elementary School, said the school budget votes were “decimating our schools.”

“To our elected school board members, I implore you to stand your ground,” she said. “Stand your ground against higher classroom sizes, against taking away the arts, against eliminating teachers and essential staff and against cutting programs and personnel that have a direct impact on our children.”

The school board will vote on its fifth budget proposal at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Dirigo Elementary School in Peru.

A districtwide budget meeting and vote will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 19, at Dirigo High School in Dixfield, followed by referendums at polling station in all four towns Jan. 7.

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