Update: RSU 16 Reconfiguration Talks Set Aside For Now, But Board Still Blunders Budget

Approximately 85 community members, made up of teachers, parents & bus drivers packed the PRHS Library for the March 9th School board meeting.

While the subject of school configuration was not listed on the agenda, Board Chair Mary Martin allowed several parents to speak on the matter and express their concerns regarding plans to reconfigure the district’s 3 elementary schools.

During this question and comment period, Martin stated that…

“…there is no reconfiguration plan, there is no proposal…um we certainly haven’t taken any action”

and in response to a similar question, Martin replied…

“I would just say again….any change as significant as reconfiguration would not be made by administration and the school board without very deep involvement um from parents and community.”

When pushed for further clarification, Martin responded…

“it has been brought up to us….from…since we became an RSU…its nothing we’ve acted on. It has been part of the discussion…one of the goals in our strategic plan is that no matter whether your child is sitting in Poland school, Mechanic Falls or Minot that they have exactly the same opportunities and it’s that kind of equity of resources and opportunities that as a board we want to make sure every student in this district has…and thats around the conversion when it has come up…and its just been conversation.”

When asked why Superintendent Ken Healey had declared reconfiguration a goal during the School Board’s January meeting [READ HERE], Martin reiterated that “…there is no proposal out there and there is no action this board has taken.”

Download March 9th Meeting Minutes HERE.  Watch Entire March 9th Meeting HERE.

A few days following the March 9th board meeting, February’s Education Policy subcommittee minutes were released. The Strategic Plan was discussed under Item 3 of the subcommittee’s released minutes, stating that “Ken, Amy and Cari will work on updating the Strategic Plan and make a proposal to the subcommittee later on.”

Due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, March’s Ed Policy Subcommittee meeting was called off entirely. When the subcommittee finally met on April 27th, the strategic plan was under item 4 of the meeting’s agenda.  The following is pulled directly from the April 27th meeting minutes.

“Finalize our strategic plan updates (I don’t recall if we’re complete on this item). Amy has no proposals right now for what the teaching/learning portion of our strategic plan will
look like for the next five years. If we could push pause on the strategic plan updates right now for 3 months.”

Emphasizing this point, the minutes go on to to quote Vice-Char Joe Parent. I would recommend that we recognize that our strategic place[sic] is at best 90 days out.”

In addition to forcing a pause until at least mid-July on active discussions around changes to the strategic plan, including any involving grade reconfiguration, the Covid-19 Pandemic also forced changes to the District’s budget approval process & timeline.

The original plan would have had a Public Informational Meeting on March 31st. That meeting is for school board members & the District’s Superintendent to present a budget proposal and for the public to ask questions and make comments.

Following the Public Informational Meeting, the board would’ve met on April 13th for a regular board meeting, made changes to the budget if necessary and then approve it to go forward to the District Budget meeting on April 29th.

The District’s Budget Meeting works much the same as a yearly town hall meeting, except instead of residents from the town, it’s residents from across the district and it’s not a town’s budget that’s being voted on, it’s the school district’s budget. Residents from across all three towns, coming together as equals and voting yay or nay on each item within the School Board’s proposed budget.

The resulting budget from the District Budget Meeting would then need to be approved by each town separately by referendum vote. These referendums where tentatively scheduled for May 12.

However, due to the pandemic, the Informational Meeting was not held until June 2nd via Zoom. Additionally, before starting his presentation at the Informational Meeting, Healey announced that the District Budget Meeting would be cancelled this year and that whatever budget was approved by the Board at their scheduled June 8th board meeting would be the budget that will be sent to each town for referendum vote.

There would be no opportunity for district residents to vote on specific budget items. Instead, the budget will be divided up between a handful of referendum articles for reach town to vote on.

It was explained later in the meeting that only a couple of the referendum articles will actually represent the tax increases while the remaining referendum articles are effectively procedural votes that would had normally occurred during the District Budget Meeting.

Healey explained that the decision to cancel the district budget meeting was coming entirely from the governor’s office and that, while nothing had been formally announced to the public, he expected an official announcement within days.

That anticipated announcement was released the following day on June 3rd as Executive Order 56An Order To Further Facilitate The State Primary and Local elections Within Public Health Restrictions Due to Covid-19” The relevant section can be found under Part 1 section I which states “For school budget year 2020/2021 only, voter approval of the school budget may be by referendum vote, notwithstanding any statute to the contrary.”  as well as section J, which outlines requirements and/or alternatives for holding the District Budget Meeting during the pandemic.

After Healey explained the unlikelihood of holding the District Budget Meeting this year, he went on with the budget proposal presentation.

At $24,163,772, the proposed budget is $1,707,111 more than the current budget. However, over 67% of that amount would be covered by a $1,147,815 increase from state funding.

The remaining $770,237 would need to be raised through local taxes. Based on a home assessed at $100k, it was explained what this tax increase would look like within each town. A $100k property in Poland would pay an additional $62.69 per year in property taxes while equivalent properties in Minot & Mechanic Falls would pay an additional $61.61 and $18.42 respectively.

Combined with the increase in state funding, the proposed tax increase would cover the 5% increase in teacher & support staff pay required by state law. The proposed budget also includes a 3% -5% raise for all administrative office staff, including those not required by contract, as well as the addition of an assistant superintendent position to the administrative office’s budget.

Healey also touched on the on-going labor dispute with the District’s Transportation Department, reporting that he had been unable to negotiate a new contract with the district’s bus drivers.

Other proposals within the budget include developing an existing position into a Special Ed Behavioral Dean of of Students and to develop a Middle School Level Behavioral Program. The budget also includes monies for a new Literacy Coach, Technology Coach, a Dean of Students for MCS, a kindergarten Ed Tech and additional custodial services for ESS and a new World Language Teacher (French) for PRHS.

Poland’s Town Board of Select-person Chair, Mary-Beth Taylor, was the first resident to speak. She argued that, in light of the Covid-19 Pandemic, the Town of Poland would be working to develop a flat budget for the coming year and were planning to recall the town’s budget committee in order to make those changes in an informed manner. In response to the idea that any changes to the budget from this point forward would be done at the board’s June 8th meeting, Taylor recommended having the actual RSU budget committee, re-convene and develop a flat budget for the coming year. Taylor reiterated support for teacher salary increases but questioned the necessity for additional programs and positions.

The idea that the budget should be revisited and reduced due to Covid-19 concerns was expressed by other residents as well, with some specifically mentioning the increase to the administrative budget as a concern. Several teachers and staff also spoke in favor of portions of the budget and the need for the new positions being proposed.

Toward the end of the meeting, in discussing if they should reconvene the district’s budget committee, it was concluded that the budget committee was mainly made up of committee members and while each town is allowed to have a representative on the budget committee, only two of the three towns chose to participate.

It was concluded that, rather than reconvene the budget committee, the board would, instead, take all the comments and concerns expressed at the Informational Meeting and make “some hard decisions” at the regular June 8th board meeting. Martin closed the meeting stating that anyone else that wants to share their opinions with the board can do so through email and time would also be provided at the June 8th board meeting for further comments and questions prior to the board making any final decisions

Two of the Board’s 15 members were absent from the June 8th meeting. [Agenda] [Full Video]

While Poland and Minot each had their 5 members present, 2 Mechanic Falls board members, Louis Goulet & Chelsea Clavet, were both absent. (It was later revealed, through a facebook response from Martin, that both Goulet & Clavet are regularly absent from board meetings and their sub-committee meetings.)

Poland Councilwoman Mary-Beth Taylor again spoke on behalf of Poland’s town council at the June 8th meeting.  Reiterating many of  the same concerns she expressed during the Informational Meeting, Taylor added that Poland was preparing for a 10 and 15% loss in revenue and that many Poland residents have been laid-off or furloughed while others are now facing bankruptcy as result of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Taylor also explained that the Poland Town Council had already reconvened their budget committee and, after negotiation, decided to support a flat budget for the coming year. Items that can be put of a year, like equipment and vehicle purchases, are being put off for now.

She went on to request that the school board do the same and reconvene their budget committee and argued they would be the ones best suited to decide what should or should not be postponed until the following year. She stated that, she’d spoke with Poland’s volunteer budget committee member, and that they would be willing to reconvene with board members and take a closer look at what changes could be made in light of the pandemic.

Taylor also pointed out that the budget as it stands today has no line items that reflect the need for additional cleaning equipment and supplies now required for buses and classrooms, that more nurse staffing may now be needed and the need for additional substitutes for when teachers end up in 14 day quarantine may also be a factor.

Martin opened the Board’s discussions by going over some of the concerns expressed at the Informational meeting as well as from emails from constituents. Several board members spoke to the issue of having this budget prepared under entirely different circumstances and that there were now a number of unknown budgetary expenditures that should be taken into consideration. Potential increases in transportation costs were specifically mentioned. In the same vein, other members were resistant to increasing the tax burden on their constituents out of empathy for the current financial situation resulting from the pandemic.

Martin spoke of reluctance in adding the three new planned positions at this time, but also expressed concern that not having those positions filled could prove harmful to students in the long term when they do finally return to school.

Several board members reiterated this point as well, arguing that these three positions are essential and that, given the stress of the pandemic, it would be a mistake to push them back another year now when students would need them the most. Board members also spoke specifically of community support for both the Dean of Students for Minot and the Kindergarten Interventionist position.

Martin also touched on parents’ concerns regarding administration costs and provided some explanation, stating that RSU 16’s administrative costs are comparable to similar districts with a similar number of students.

After some further discussion, Norm Beauparlant asked Healey the impact of cutting 200k from the budget in a way that allows the administrative team to pick through and decide where that 200k should be cut from.

Healey responded that if that were the decision, those cuts would possibly come from the three new proposed positions (World Teacher for High School, a Dean of Students for Minot & a Kindergarten Interventionist for Mechanic Falls) as well as some operational costs expenses. Healey Specifically mentioned approximately $40K for new furniture as something that can be put off.

As discussion continued on the merits of cutting 200k from the proposed budget and what that would look like on a property tax bill, Travis Richie asked for clarification on where, exactly, the $200K would be cut from. Healey, restated that it would possibly come from the 3 new positions and some furniture but that this answer is an off-the-cuff response and he would be unable to say for sure where that 200k would be cut from at this time.

When pressed further on the subject, Healey stated that it might still be possible to fill a portion of those 3 positions with the 200k reduction but that it would probably require hiring a younger candidate with less job experience. Later in the discussion, Richie stated he supported the idea of reducing 200k but not if it meant cutting those 3 new positions.

Ed Rebasco explained that a significant amount of the feedback he’s received has asked to keep the budget as it is. Rebasco went on to explain that the board’s fiscal responsibility over the past decade has put RSU 16 in a position where the district’s budgetary needs are below the state average and argued that it’s a lot easier for other communities to put off raising taxes or adding to the budget for a year because they’re already paying more than what the residents of RSU 16 pay. Reducing the RSU 16 budget now would have a more adverse effect on the district’s students than in other districts because RSU 16’s funding levels are already below average.

During the discussion, Steve Holbrook argued a preference for as much as $500k and that, in his nearly 3 decades of school board service, this increase was the largest he had seen.

The final member to speak before the board moved to vote on the motion was Joe Parent. Parent spoke about the unlikelihood of just being able to add these positions back in next year given that people are always going to resist a rise in taxes. Parent also reiterated that, the need for these positions was probably going to be even greater now than before as children return to school in the fall.

As discussion on the motion to remove $200k from the proposed budget wrapped up, Martin stated at [1:22:21], ok…we have a motion on the floor of which we have a second and that motion is to cut $200k from the budget…so we’ll do a roll call vote and Ken I will ask you to keep track of that since that is a weighted vote…we need to have 502 is it Ken?

Ken respondedwe need 502.5.  Results of the roll call vote are as follows….

Ed Rebasco – No
Joe Parent – No
Melanie Harvey – No
Norm Beauparlant Yes
Norm Davis Yes

Laura Hemond- Yes
Mike Lacasse – No
James Crouse – Yes
Steve Holbrook – Yes
Mike Downing – Yes

Mechanic Falls
Mary Martin – Yes
Scott Lessard – no
Travis Richie – no
Louis Goulet – absent
Chelsea Clavet absent

Seven members voted in favor of cutting $200k from the budget while the remaining six voted against the motion. However, due to the district’s weighted voting system, the motion failed with those supporting the $200k cut getting 445 votes and those opposed to the cut getting 446 votes. [Download District Regulations Explaining Weighted Voting System]

Mary declared the motion failed and pushed for further discussion but received none. She eventually suggested that Richie, a supporter of the full budget, propose a new motion. At which point, [1:25:08] Richie proposed a motion to pass the budget as is, which was quickly seconded by Parent. At the same time Parent seconded the motion, Beauparlant began to express technical issues.

Martin then asked the board for any discussion on the new motion to pass the budget as is. After a few seconds of silence, at the 1:25:40 marker, Beauparlant asked Have we lost the audio?

Both Healey and Martin respond that they can both hear Beauparlant fine. At which point, Beauparlant stated I can’t hear anybody.”

Healey, [1:26:57], stated he would call Beauparlant and suggest he log out and then back into zoom, which he immediately got up to do. Martin then suggested Richie discuss why he supports passing the budget without any reductions.

Richie then laid out much the same argument as he had during the previous board meeting, adding that parts of the country were already opening back up and questioned whether a 6’ rule would apply to school buses by the fall.

After which, [1:28:45] Martin spoke to her concerns about reducing the planned budget but also stated…

I do know that the second time you never get more that would be my worry and concern about it…is that um that we put out a budget that we cant get the support for in the community…it fails in referendum…then we end up with a budget that may even be less…so I mean that that’s my worry and and concern related to the budget.

After Holbrook expressed his full agreement with Martin’s remarks, , Beauparlant [1:30:14] stated that he lost his audio as Healey was announcing the result of the previous measure to cut $200k. Healey read back the weighted result and also provided a brief explanation of how the weighted voting system works.

Mary added that the weighted system was part of the RSU 16 restructuring plan and then asked for further discussion on Richie’s motion. Again, Beauparlant spoke up [1:31:43] and stated that he had missed what the motion was that Richie had proposed and so it was re-read by Martin.

Upon request, Martin then allowed Cari Medd, the PRHS Principal, to speak. Medd stated that, after review with the current PRHS World Language teachers, they had developed a plan to operate without the new position. She stated that the plan would be to combine French 3 & 4 into a single class for the year. The idea was that it would re-enforce what was learned last year and work on what was missed because of the pandemic. Medd added that this has been done before when Spanish class sizes were too small and that combining these two classes would not create an over-sized class.

This spurred several board members to argue that a budget without at least some good faith cuts will likely fail at referendum. Board members with multiple decades of school board service recalled past experiences when the budget was rejected 3 times before approval.

Lessard restated both sides of the argument and questioned if Richie could make a new motion minus the new World Leader Position. Mary then reminded the board that there was already a motion on the floor that needed to be voted upon, before another motion could be made.

After Lacasse shared his opinions for supporting the full budget, the motion was put to a vote. The results are listed below.

Ed Rebasco – Yes
Joe Parent – Yes
Melanie Harvey – Yes
Norm Beauparlant No
Norm Davis – No

Laura Hemond- No
Mike Lacasse – Yes
James Crouse – No
Steve Holbrook – No
Mike Downing – No

Mechanic Falls
Mary Martin – No
Scott Lessard – Yes
Travis Richie – Yes
Louis Goulet – absent
Chelsea Clavet absent

Six members voted to pass the full budget, as is and seven voted against it. However, the weighted vote resulted in 446 votes for the motion and 445 votes against the motion. After Healey announced that the motion passed [1:43:06], both Beauparlant and Rebasco questioned the results, with Lessard and Holbrook both adding that they thought 502 was required to pass a motion.

Healey replies No, that 502 is quorum to have a meeting and then proceeded to double check the district’s voting rules.

Beauparlant then stated that I’m with Ed [Rebasco], I thought we needed to have 502 votes to pass an item, not 502 for a quorum

While Martin double checked the voting rules’ exact wording within the reorganization plan, Rebasco replied “That’s how we have behaved before… adding that it had been something he’d taken issue with in the past.

After reviewing the voting rules [View Voting Rules] and reading portions aloud, Martin concluded that 502 was not required to pass a motion, only a majority.

Rebasco then asked Why then at a number of previous meetings have we had weighted votes pass things and Ken & you [Martin] say we need 502 votes to pass something?

Mary replys “And it may have been that we confused what we need for quorum and…” before being interrupted by Healey to read aloud the district’s voting rules, which can be viewed HERE and is as follows…

“A motion shall be declared “Carried” upon the affirmative vote of the majority by weighted votes of the members present and voting, unless otherwise required by law or Board policy.”

Martin asked Rebasco for his parliamentary opinion as to how to proceed. Rebasco declined to provide one and reiterated that, to the best of his recollection, the board had enforced a 502 vote in the past.

Mary then asked Healey for his opinion, whom replied

“My recommendation is that the vote stands as it is just because based on what our voting method says…I can’t see that uh…we may have said in the past or said we need to have 502 but that if I did say that, that was confusing. We cant have a meeting unless we have a quorum of 502. If we have 502 show up then the majority has legal vote for every vote that we make after that quorum….so we have a quorum of more than 502…we have 891 of total votes and in this case the fors win by one as opposed to the last time when the fors were against by one.”

Martin then affirmed that the motion to pass the budget, unchanged, had carried and would be sent for referendum for final approval on July 14th

The next agenda item for the June 8th Board Meeting was to formally cancel the scheduled June 24th District Budget Meeting.

After speaking with the district’s lawyer, Healey explained that because of the Governor’s executive order, it would be more practical for the district to simply cancel the District Budget Meeting entirely and replace it with a “Public Hearing“.  The Public Hearing will be similar to the Informational Meeting with the major difference being that, at this point, no changes or cuts are permitted to the proposed budget, unless it fails at referendum on Tuesday, July 14th.

The District Budget Meeting Budget Public Hearing was held via Zoom on June 24th and can be viewed HERE.

Check HERE to see what to expect on your July 14th referendum ballot.

Original Post From March 9th