Dirigo High School sophomore Travis Ryerson spoke as a representative of the student body during the RSU 56 board of directors meeting on Tuesday. Ryerson and other students were protesting the elimination of the school’s principal due to budget cuts. Marianne Hutchinson/Rumford Falls Times

PERU — The Regional School Unit 56 board of directors voted 8-2 Tuesday night for a $12.72 million budget that eliminates money for a principal for Dirigo High School.

A motion to increase the budget to save the position failed to pass.

Voters will be asked to weigh in on the spending plan — it’s the fifth one this year — at a districtwide meeting Thursday, Dec. 19, at Dirigo High School. A referendum in each town will be held Jan. 7.

The latest budget for 2019-20 represents a 3.5% increase from the previous fiscal year and an average increase of 11.2% in assessments for Canton, Carthage, Dixfield and Peru.

RSU 56 school board director Barry Prescott of Dixfield, right, speaks during the board of directors’ meeting on Tuesday. Beside him are directors Carl Lueders of Canton, Angela Varnum of Dixfield, Jennifer Doherty of Carthage and Business Manager Mary Dailey. Marianne Hutchinson/Rumford Falls Times

About 50 high school students attended Tuesday’s meeting to protest the possible termination of Principal Lisa Twomey. They had heard that last week the board made the proposal and that Superintendent Pam Doyen would take over as principal, in addition to her other duties.

High school junior Spencer Jacques, speaking on behalf of students, said he had a petition with more than 90 signatures of students opposed to the termination.

“Of the school’s 217 students that’s almost 50% of the school,” he said.

“The principal position has allowed us to explore different options for post-secondary school and really opened up our eyes to different things we can do,” he said. “Students think that (the position) is very important and a value to our education.”

High school sophomore Travis Ryerson said, “Our school is in jeopardy.

“Most of the student body would agree with me when I say we need our principal,” he said. “We could go to the principal about anything. She was focused on keeping the school civil. She was spreading the message that it was OK to have different opinions and still be friends with one another.”

Director Barry Prescott of Dixfield, who was not at last week’s board meeting because of his work schedule, said, “I can’t in good faith support this budget . . . simply because we’re slashing and slashing and slashing. You get to a point where we think it will be approved by voters; I understand that needs to happen.

He added, “I was elected to fight tooth and nail for the education of the kids. And if it means fighting the voters and times at whatever expense rather than cutting to a point where we’re not providing good educational opportunities for students I’m failing.”

Director Angela Cushman of Peru, who also was unable to attend last week’s meeting, said, “I decided to come on this board and I was told we were supposed to be recreating our school district, and since we started the budget process all we’re looking at is cuts, cuts, cuts.

“I want my grandchildren to stay here,” she said, “but if we keep decimating this budget (high school graduates) are not going to come back here.”

Director Bill Hine of Peru said cutting the principal’s position was “rushing to a bad decision. I am probably the biggest budget hawk on this board but I don’t think that cutting the high school principal is the way to go.”

A motion to increase the budget 3.8% to keep the principal’s position failed 4-6.

Some directors, including Samantha Noyes of Dixfield, said they felt voters who opposed to the past four budgets “drew a line in the sand. But I think that the line in the sand was (to cut) an administrator, I’ll just say that.”

Board Chairwoman Barbara Chow of Dixfield agreed.

“I agree that it doesn’t matter the (budget) number that we bring to this next validation meeting if we go to the next validation meeting without showing a cut to our administrative team,” Noyes said. “The only way we’re going to change noes into yeses is by cutting at the administrative level.”

Voting for the $12.72 million budget were Carl Lueders of Canton, Jennifer Doherty of Carthage, Bruce Ross and Noyes, both of Dixfield, Deb Mooney and Cushman, both of Peru, and Chow and Angela Varnum of Dixfield.

Voting against it were Prescott and Hine.

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 from the previous year and an average 15.6% increase in assessments. The fourth budget this month was $12.79 million with a 4.1% increase from the previous year and an average increase in assessments of 13.64%.

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.

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