RSU 40 needs more balanced budget approach, better communication

By The Courier-Gazette Editorial Board | Apr 05, 2018

Recent budget meetings in RSU 40 raise several concerns, chief among them the proposal to slash the special education budget.

The school district is looking at a $28 million budget package for this year, which will be a tough pill for the taxpayers to choke down. One of the challenges it faces is a $1.8 million budget deficit driven by the usual culprits of the food service budget and cuts in state subsidy. The second one seems curious, since it seems it was only a few months ago that the district and towns were arguing over whether some $590,000 in additional state subsidy should go into the district's general fund or back to the towns for tax relief, and the district opted to keep the money.

At recent budget meetings, district leaders proposed cutting $485,000 in funding for special education while approving hundreds of thousands in funding for sports with little discussion.

We understand the extremely difficult job of balancing the needs of the children with the burden on local taxpayers. However, a more balanced approach seems reasonable. Why not spread the cuts out across the board, rather than hitting one area hardest -- the one that deals with the most vulnerable and needy students in the district?

Director of Special Services Karen Brackett poured her heart and soul out at the meetings, and several parents showed up to express their concern for their children who receive special education services. Indeed, about 50 people attended the meetings.

The money for special education has been put back into the budget as it goes from the budget committee to the school board, but more work is needed to even out this budget as it goes forward. We hope the school board will sharpen its pencils and get to work making cuts that are more evenly distributed throughout the budget rather than attempting to pass a massive increase or to put most of the pain in any one place.

We would urge more community participation to make sure this process best serves all the stakeholders in the district.

On that note, school board and budget committee meetings need to become more friendly to public participation. Currently, the meetings are often held in a gymnasium with no microphones to project the voices of the school officials. Residents who attend cannot hear what is being said, including the discussion and debates over important budget decisions. This needs to be improved.

Even Medomak Valley High School Interim Principal Linda Pease asked the board to please project their voices louder, as nothing could be heard from her vantage point. Of all the meetings presented by the RSU 40 Board of Directors on such important topics, it is inexcusable that more effort is not put into making certain their voices are heard.

This is a relatively simple fix and one that most public boards in the area have already adopted, many with their meetings televised on local cable access channels. RSU 40, affecting five towns, is a large enough entity to justify buying some microphones and cameras to improve communication.

As budget talks proceed, we expect more people will attend meetings and make their voices heard. We understand that the job of school board members is difficult and often thankless, but urge school leaders not to go on the defensive. We as a community are all in this together, and it never hurts to listen to each other.

The proposed budget now heads to the district's Board of Directors for approval. That meeting will take place April 5 at Medomak Middle School at 7 p.m. The proposed budget will then head to voters in June. Be sure to attend the meetings. No one else will necessarily speak for you!

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