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Pownal's costs rise 300% in proposed RSU budget

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Pownal's costs rise 300% in proposed RSU budget

FREEPORT — Pownal residents are reportedly "outraged" by a proposed $24 million budget for Regional School Unit 5 that would increase the schools' share of their property taxes by an estimated $1,500 per household.

At the first of three budget hearings last week, RSU board member Jen Kaplan of Pownal said the discussion needed to focus on cutting the budget, not improvements and additions. She said "work needs to be done" and she was surprised it hadn't started yet.

Pownal resident and former Reorganization Planning Committee member Sherry Dietrich said while working to create a consolidation plan, RPC members were concerned about costs, but she never thought Pownal would take such a large hit.

"The town is outraged," she said.

The proposed RSU budget is a combination of the three school budgets, plus an additional $1.8 million for high school improvements, salary increases, contingency plans, debt and services no longer provided by the municipal budgets.

While the $24 million budget is nearly an 8 percent increase over this year, Superintendent Shannon Welsh said benefits would include ownership of the high school and central office, governance for Durham and Pownal, and enhanced programming and opportunities for all students.

"This needs to be about programming and keeping vibrant schools alive in each of the communities," she said.

Welsh said the towns would share the additional local contribution – $4.6 million – according to their cost-sharing formula. Pownal faces an increase of $496,000 in school costs, Durham will have an increase of about $40,000 after their elementary school payment is reimbursed by the state, and Freeport will see an additional $184,000 since almost $400,000 is in non-shared debt already paid for by the taxpayers.

Under the proposed budget, Pownal will experience the most significant increase in taxes due to consolidation, based on a 300 percent increase in local education costs. Freeport's increase would be 20 percent and Durham's would be 50 percent.

Alan Bradstreet of Pownal told board members not to raise taxes during such a recession. He said many residents have experienced reductions in wages, benefits, and hours. He urged them to take a closer look at the numbers.

"There are creative things you can do," he said. "I just hope you look at all of them."

Freeport Town Councilor Joe Migliaccio suggested the RSU board follow the Freeport municipal goal to not increase taxes during such a difficult economic time.

Jay Perotta of Freeport spoke in support of the Pownal taxpayers. He said he felt for the residents of Pownal, and asked them if they would have voted to approve consolidation if they knew what it implied.

"It looks like Pownal is taking this in a painful way," he said. "I'm sorry."

Some RSU directors didn't feel comfortable offering suggestions on a budget they were unfamiliar with, while others suggested wage freezes and a list of prioritized improvement ideas.

Welsh said she and the administrative teams would look for savings in the town's contingency plans, in the business office, in wages and benefits, in high school programming and in capitol improvements. She also said she would encourage the teams to look for sources of revenue and additional collaborative efforts.

The next budget hearing was scheduled for Wednesday night, April 15.

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net.