A socially distanced RSU 21 budget meeting held June 16 at Kennebunk Elementary School and streamed online, saw passage of a $51.57 million budget. The final step in the approval process is a validation vote in Arundel, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport on July 14. Tammy Wells photo

KENNEBUNK – Voters overwhelmingly cast their ballots in favor of continued funding for school resources officers in the Regional School Unit 21 elementary schools during the district budget meeting on Tuesday, June 16.

After some debate, the measure to defund school resource officers at the four elementary schools was defeated, 91-54.

With no other debate on the 20-article warrant, voters approved the overall $51.57 million budget for the next fiscal year. The final step in the budget process is a validation vote in each of the three communities, Arundel, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, on July 14.

The meeting was a conducted at a socially distanced public setting at Kennebunk Elementary School that lasted nearly three hours.

The bid to defund the four elementary school police officers came from resident John Costin. He said the move to install resource officers in the elementary schools came hastily, after a mass shooting by a former student at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, two years ago, and felt it would be better to fund more counselors and social workers. Costin said, in part, that there is no evidence to support that having police officers in elementary schools is beneficial.

“When we teach our children, especially our white children, that the best solution to their every problem is a police officer, we can set in motion a chain of events that may have disastrous consequences for them and the other people, especially black people, that they encounter beyond these walls,” said Costin.

There were several speakers advocating for and against Costin’s proposal.

Among them was Kennebunkport resident Gaby Grekin, who pointed out that the schools are located in one of the safest towns in the safest state in the country. She asked others join her in voting to remove funding for the four elementary school school resource officers.

Another speaker, Luna Costin, said that putting police officers in schools isn’t helpful, isn’t based on evidence, and makes black students feel less safe. “We shouldn’t continue this program if we haven’t done the work to measure their (resource officer) impact on marginalized students in our community,” she said.

Others felt differently, including Kennebunk Elementary School Principal Ryan Quinn, who said resource officers have been “nothing but an incredible asset,” in the schools. Quinn said he advocated for school resource officers because he saw the value they bring to the school.

“To remove the SROs would eliminate exactly the kind of equity that we endeavor to create,” he said. “I’ve been working in schools for 30 years, and I have never seen a position have the kind of impact our school resource officer has made.”

Quinn noted it isn’t  inner-city schools that have experienced mass shootings, but those in smaller communities.

Resident Bob McDermott, a retired police sergeant, said the role of an school resource officer is not to bring young people into the criminal justice system as some have suggested, but to have police in contact with children as they grow up. He said resource officers are someone a child can go to for help.

Police Chief Robert McKenzie said one of the best contributions of an school resource officer, other than keeping kids safe, is building relationships.

After the Costin amendment to remove funding failed, voters turned to the original article and one voter asked to confirm that money for resource officers was included.

“Article 9 fully funds SROs at the elementary, middle and high school,” said school Board Chair Kendra Connor. “It is the will of the majority of the board and that is what the money will be allocated for.”

The specific article was approved, in its original form, 102-35.

With all articles approved, the next and final step for the RSU 21 budget is the July 14 validation.

The $51.57 million spending plan is up by $1.4 million from the current year, budget documents show, but had been about $771,000 more until a bottom-line reduction was taken by the RSU 21 School Board on May 11.

As currently presented, the school budget would impact Arundel’s tax rate by about 49.5 cents; Kennebunk’s tax rate by 36.07 cents and Kennebunkport’s by 9.92 cents, according to figures supplied by RSU 21.

If RSU 21 budget is validated by voters July 14, the tax rate on a home in Arundel valued at $250,000 would increase by $123.75; in Kennebunk, by $90.18; and in Kennebunkport, by $24.80.

Currently, Kennebunk’s tax rate is $13.75 per $1,000 of assessed value. In Arundel, the mil rate is $16.30 and in Kennebunkport, $9.45.

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