RSU 9 board votes to use added state funds for property tax relief, district debt reduction

FARMINGTON — The Regional School Unit 9 board of directors voted Thursday to use $729,954 in additional funding the district expects to receive from the state to zero out any increases in district towns’ school assessments and reduce the amount of money the district planned to borrow for a series of capital improvement projects.

The board also voted to fund three new staff positions, including two regular education social workers to split time between Wilton, Farmington and New Sharon schools. The third position, either a full-time guidance counselor at Mt. Blue High School or student services coordinator at the Foster Technology Center, would supplement a position currently split between the two schools.

In a two-hour special meeting, board directors, district administrators and members of the public debated how best to balance the board’s responsibility to local taxpayers and outstanding unfunded needs in district schools.

Last month the board approved a $33.6 million budget after its original $33.9 million budget was voted down in the district’s June 13 annual budget referendum. The new figure represented a $344,524 reduction from the board’s previous proposal with board members voting to revisit the cuts once state funding numbers became available.

In its first motion, the board voted unanimously to devote $378,165 of the state funds, or 52 percent, to keeping town school assessments flat for the upcoming year. By law, half of the state’s subsidy must go toward property tax relief. The board then agreed in a 7-2 vote to spend $50,340 for the additional guidance position. Superintendent Thomas Ward noted that the district should receive reimbursement from the state for the Foster Tech student services position and has requested the state expedite the payment.

Wilton director Irving Faunce motioned to apply all of the remaining state funds toward reducing a $317,834 voter approved bond issue for school building and property repairs, but that motion was voted down, with opposing directors arguing that the board should revisit some of its earlier budget cuts. Wilton director Cherieann Harrison spoke forcefully in favor of adding back funding for social worker positions for the district.

“We know the needs,” Harrison said. “It’s not just the buildings, it’s the students that are inside the buildings.”

Throughout the discussion board members referenced district data on student mental health challenges over the last year. In the 2016-2017 school year, district schools performed suicide assessments for students of all ages, including 27 assessments for students in grade 5 or lower. Mt. Blue Middle School had the highest number of assessments — 87 last year alone, with seven of those leading to hospitalizations. The district made a total of 81 referrals to the Department of Health and Human Services.

In a 7-3 vote Thursday the board approved spending $136,018 for the two social worker positions. Harrison’s proposals to fund a half time science teacher and half time American Sign Language at the Mt. Blue High School were defeated, however. The board voted unanimously to use the remaining $165,431 in state funds to reduce the district’s debt burden.

The district will present the revised $33,904,537 budget to voters for the first time at its July 25 annual budget meeting. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at the Mt. Blue campus. The budget will then go to district towns for ratification on August 3.

In total, the board’s changes would lead to increases in three of the articles going before voters. Costs for the new guidance position will be split between article 3, career and technical education and article 5, student and staff support. Funds to decrease the bond issue will appear under article 9, facilities maintenance.

Kate McCormick — 861-9218

[email protected]

Twitter: @KateRMcCormick

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