REGION — With the referendum on Maine School Administrative District 17’s proposed $53.6 million budget set for June 11, some municipal leaders of the district’s eight sending towns have taken the rare step of encouraging voters to reject it.

Town managers for West Paris, Paris, Oxford and Harrison have issued releases on behalf of their respective select boards advising residents to vote against the budget, which reflects an operational increase of $3.7 million over last year.

The budget covers operations for SAD 17 education K-12, Oxford Hills/Nezinscot Adult Education and Maine Vocational Region 11, as well as a $2 million local share contribution for building repair and maintenance.

School budgets across Oxford Hills communities have been approved by two-thirds to three-quarters margins during previous referendums.

While selectmen in Paris and West Paris have communicated their frustration with rising school budgets in past years, this is the first time in recent memory they have taken such proactive steps against it.

During the Paris Select Board meeting May 28, Town Manager Natalie Andrews provided the board with a letter from town attorney Kristin Collins who advised that the $2 million to be raised for the district’s capital reserve fund should have been included in the total cost-center budget, not as a separate article on the referendum warrant, number 19.


Collins further states that article 20 asks voters to give the “school board unfettered authority to spend money out of that (capital reserve) fund.” She argues that the reserve fund must include a description, according to state law.

The district is requesting $2 million this year and is expected to repeat the request annually over about the next decade. The $2 million is the first piece of a multiyear plan to tackle maintenance and repairs to all eight elementary schools in the district.

In Harrison, Town Manager Cass Newell said that if the budget passes, or if meaningful cuts are not made, she has been directed by that town’s select board to explore options to leave SAD 17 for another district or adopt a tuition-style model to send its children to other public or private schools.

“We have a very tight, bare bones budget here,” Newell said during an interview with the Advertiser Democrat Monday. “And Harrison has the highest local assessment of any town in SAD 17” due to its property tax valuation.

Harrison taxpayers are also bracing for the results of its just-completed town-wide property reevaluation.

Officials for Hebron and Otisfield confirmed by email to the Advertiser Democrat that they are not taking a public position on how their residents should vote in the upcoming election.


“We have advised the residents of Hebron of the [school] budget amounts and encourage the residents to review the budget and make an informed decision prior to voting,” wrote Hebron Select Board Chair Elizabeth Olsen.

In Norway, Select Chair Russ Newcomb said he does not expect the school budget to be on any meeting agenda before June 11. Speaking for himself only, Newcomb said he sees no reason to oppose it at the ballot box.

Calls to Waterford selectperson Jamie Toohey were not returned by press time

This year marks the first time since the Great Recession of 2008 that directors have added a line item to the district’s budget for school building upkeep, ending a 15-year pattern of “deferred maintenance.” The about-face followed the abrupt closure of West Paris’ Agnes Gray Elementary School in February.

The architectural firm LaVallee Brensinger of Portland had issued a report on Agnes Gray detailing a long list of known but not aggregated life safety and codes issues that led to Superintendent Heather Manchester closing the school to students and staff. LaVallee Brensinger and another firm, Harriman Architecture of Auburn, were contracted to tour and access all schools in the district as part of a years-long plan to replace Agnes Gray and Oxford Hills Middle School.

The warrant article requesting the $2 million will not be changed “as voters overwhelmingly approved it at the district budget forum on May 14,” Manchester said by email.


“If the budget does not pass, we will adjust the budget by making cuts and re-engaging in the process,” she wrote.

West Paris, which could be considered ground zero in the crisis created by deferred maintenance, is watching its 120 elementary aged students redistributed to schools in three different communities. During the May 14 budget validation hearing, its representatives and residents were frustrated when SAD 17 administrators refused to say how much of the $2 million capital fund will be allocated to Agnes Gray or whether some moneys would be applied to the district’s middle and high schools.

SAD 17’s 2024-25 budget, as approved by the school board and validated during a public hearing on May 14, is 7.5% more than the current year, not including the $2 million capital reserve request. It aligns with increases to other school district budgets, as well as county assessments and municipal spending.

In Oxford for example, during annual town meeting last Saturday, voters approved a municipal budget that increased by more than 10% over this year’s. The amount the town will pay to Oxford County in the coming fiscal year will jump by almost 35%. Oxford, too, asked voters to approve a capital improvements amount of $1 million.

The difference between SAD 17’s approach, according to Oxford Select Chair Dana Dillingham, is that every dollar of Oxford’s capital improvement plan has been allocated already, whereas SAD 17 has provide no definite plan for how its $2 million will used.

Manchester has relayed to SAD 17’s board of directors that Facilities Director Jason Lampert and Finance Director Carrie Colley are prioritizing maintenance needs ahead of formulating a plan with the district’s operations committee.


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