Faced with the possibility of “devastating” cuts in staff and programs because of a worsening financial outlook, the Regional School Unit 13 board reversed course Feb. 4 and voted to consolidate Rockland District High School and Georges Valley High School in the fall of 2011.

“I’m more and more convinced this is the only option,” said board member George Emery of St. George. “I hope no one takes offense but this is a no-brainer.”

The vote came immediately after the board members voted 7-4 to direct Superintendent Judy Lucarelli to develop a 2010-2011 budget that would require an additional 3 percent in property taxes from the communities in the district. But even with that increase, the budget would have to be $2.9 million less than the spending in 2009-2010.

Lucarelli said her latest estimate on projected revenues for the next school year is that RSU 13 will have $3.5 million less in revenues than in the 2009-2010 budget. She offered three options to the board: one that would not cut the budget but would make up the difference fully from property taxes, another that would not raise any additional taxes but would cut the budget by the amount of the lost revenues, and a third option that would involve a combination of cuts and increased taxes.

Board member Brian Messing said he wanted a budget presented to the board that would not require any more money from taxpayers. He said the public will not accept a budget that cuts $1.5 million but also results in an 8 percent increase in property taxes.

Board member James Kalloch of Rockland said he went around to local businesses and asked them if they would accept a 5 percent increase in the school tax commitment.

“It was unanimous that they can’t afford a 0.5 percent increase,” Kalloch said. “People are losing their homes. The board has to make the tough choices.”

Kalloch served on the consolidation study committee that recommended the merger of the two high schools.

Lucarelli said she did not see how she could come up with a budget that would cut $3.5 million from the current $28.6 million budget.

“You have no idea how devastating it will be,” she said.

The superintendent said dozens of jobs would be cut and entire programs would be threatened. Lucarelli said, for example, that the entire extracurricular budget for the district is $600,000. The administration is also doing a complete review of the special education program.

The superintendent predicted that if she were to unveil such a budget, she would be faced with massive resignations as people would go elsewhere before a decision was made on the cuts.

After a board member said that would be good, Lucarelli excused herself from the meeting and walked around the hallway for a minute before returning to the room.

At the end of the budget debate, the board voted 7-4 with board members Loren Andrews of Cushing, Steven Dyer of Rockland, Kalloch, and Josiah Wilson of St. George voting against having the superintendent approve a budget that would require an additional 3 percent in taxes and the cuts of $2.9 million.

Lucarelli plans to submit her proposed budget to the board on April 1 but will know what staff cuts will be recommended in March.

High school consolidation

After the budget discussion, the board renewed the debate on the proposed consolidation of the two district high schools.

The board ultimately voted 6-6 to approve the plan to have eighth- and ninth-graders attend Georges Valley in Thomaston and sophomores, juniors and seniors attend RDHS starting in the fall of 2011.

The proposal was approved despite the 6-6 vote because of weighted votes. Voting for the plan were Emery, Greg Hamlin of Thomaston, Chairwoman Ruth Anne Hohfeld of South Thomaston, and Kalloch, Messing and Tessie Kilgour, all of Rockland. Voting against the consolidation plan were Andrews, Dyer, Wilson, Jamie Doubleday of Thomaston, Patricia Moran Wotton of Rockland, and Julie Sanborn of Thomaston.

At the start of the meeting, several members of the public spoke during the public comment period to argue against the consolidation

Last month, the board voiced strong opposition to an attempt to implement the change in the fall of 2010 and some said it would take years to undertake such a major change. But members said the newest grim financial news made them realize that major changes had to occur.

Lucarelli said the change would save money although she said she had no firm figures yet on the savings. She said there are small enrollment classes at both schools that could be combined under the consolidation plan. This would require fewer teachers, she said.

Dyer said he wanted to see more specific financial figures before he could support the consolidation.

Wotton said she was skeptical last month about the consolidation plan but has become more convinced of the need for it. She said she wanted more information before she could support it, however.

Andrews said the only reason he was voting against the proposal was that he now believes the consolidation needs to be done in 2010 because of the financial crisis.

Doubleday said the time line has been overly simplified and she argued against setting a date for consolidation.

During the public comment period, St. George Selectman Bill Reinhardt urged the board to go slow on consolidation.

Reinhardt said his board appointed him to serve as a liaison with RSU 13 because of its growing concern about the expected tax impact on the town from the school budget.

Parent Michelle Philbrook said she supports the Many Flags, One Campus proposal to have one, new consolidated high school but opposes the consolidation plan being considered by the board. She said if it were to be shown to save money and improve education she would be willing to consider supporting it.

She said her son, who is in the seventh grade, would be one of the first guinea pigs of this RSU 13 experiment.

Parent Michelle Peaco of Rockland also urged the board to slow down, saying too many questions have not been answered.

Kalloch, however, has said the board cannot do what it has been doing, particularly with the looming financial crisis.

Lucarelli said she was confident that the consolidation could be done by the fall of 2011.

RSU 13 includes Rockland, Thomaston, St. George, Owls Head, South Thomaston and Cushing.