Casco’s take on the proposed SAD 61 budget

SAD 61 VALIDATION VOTE TUESDAY

The SAD 61 school budget validation vote will take place at polling locations on Tuesday, May 21, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in all four towns.

Town: Casco

Where: Casco Community Center

Town: Bridgton

Where: The Bridgton Town Hall on North High Street

Town: Naples

Where: Gymnasium, Naples Town Office

Town: Sebago

Where: Sebago Town Hall

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

CASCO — The term “perfect storm” turned into a household reference after the release of a movie about the New England fishing boat caught in its wake.

Perfect storm sums up what is happening to the Casco taxpayers when it comes to shouldering the burden of the school district’s budget.

Unfortunately, a higher mill rate is in the forecast, and people can only brace themselves for the tax bill to keep area schools afloat.

The reduction of state (and federal) education money is more like a hole in the boat, than a wind-swept wave.

Another wave that hits the Town of Casco is the state-certified property valuation, in which other towns saw property values go down while Casco’s land values hardly decreased.

With $6 million in assessed land values, Casco’s annual payments to the school budget will rise by $481,670, according to Town Manager Dave Morton.

Several elements resulted in the increase.

“The big issue is that the state administration is changing how they are funding education — including the cost of teachers’ retirement. Local communities are picking up the retirement plan. That has never happened before,” Morton said.

“The other part is: The federal government not paying the interest on low-interest loans — as was promised,” Morton said.

The actual school budget is increasing after trying to stay at zero increase for several years, he said.

“The other issue is the changes in the municipal values. The state adjusts the town’s valuations. All three other towns saw a reduction in valuation, and Casco’s went down the least,” he said.

Casco has a larger percentage of the fundraising pie than it has in the past, Morton said.

It went from 21.975 percent to 22.841 percent, he said.

“It doesn’t sound like a big increase until you look at the total budget,” he said.

The total budget for the four-town school district is $29,928,764.

Currently the town pays a monthly bill to the school district of $500,000. During the new fiscal year, which begins July 1, that figure will be closer to $513,000 a month, Morton said.

“The important thing for people to understand is the big part of the increase is because of (State of Maine) administrative changes. Policies at the state level are impacting the local level,” he said.

Following the lead of the Bridgton Board of Selectmen, the Town of Casco recently drafted an official letter requesting that the State of Maine reimburse the money that has been shifted to the local taxpayers.

The Casco Board of Selectmen also invited SAD 61 Superintendent of Schools Dr. Kathleen Beecher and Financial Director Sherrie Small to a workshop on April 30.

According to Chairman Mary-Veinessa Fernandes, it is vital that Casco taxpayers understand the factors that are driving up the school budget, particularly for this Lake Region town. The board submitted questions before the meeting to expedite the information-gathering process.

Small explained that the school budget portion of the mill rate is based on state-certified land valuations that were done in 2012. She stressed those valuations are a different set of number than the town’s revaluation — which is scheduled to be completed later this summer.

“If you notice, we are using the 2012 state-certified valuation,” she said.

“Unfortunately, that means Casco is going to pick up what those other towns are losing in funding,” Small said.

The state does cap the mill rate, so that no one town pays an unfair distribution for its school district’s budget.

“The mill rate is 8.11 mills. The town cannot pay more than 8.11 mills,” she said.

“You don’t raise enough with 8.11 mills to support your allocation based on student enrollment, so the state supplements that difference,” she said.

So, the school district will receive $116,000 from the state for the Town of Casco, she said.

Also, to relieve the financial burden the state provides 25 percent of the special education costs. Lawmakers added an economically-disadvantaged component that distributes some funding to the district.

“Thankfully we get that,” Small said.

Later during the workshop discussion, residents pointed out that more than half of the children attending SAD 61 schools qualify for free and reduced school lunches — an indicator that many year round residents are in a lower income bracket.

Land values were not a good indicator of the economy, audience members said.

“We are in the unenviable position of paying more than any other school district,” Morton said, referring to the shift in state funding when the Essential Programs and Services (EPS) formula was put in place.

“It has been our downfall, the EPS formula and the acceleration of land values for properties with waterfront. All four communities of the Lake Region have a lot of waterfront,” he said.

“I think the school board overall did a really good job. There are some state policy issues that are wreaking havoc with our local school budget,” he said.

School Board member Phil Shane said he has not heard any complaints from people about the district budget.

“It’s a lot quieter than past years,” he said, adding much of the frustration has been toward the state education budget.

“It’s what the state has done to us for the last six years. It keeps taking money away from SAD 61,” said Shane, who has been on the school board for 20 years.

The salaries and health care cost for teachers in the district was bound to increase, he said. It was unfortunate that the state was shuffling off to communities the retirement fund cost, he said.

He had “a good feeling about” voters passing the school budget at the ballot boxes on Tuesday. But, he added he could be surprised by the outcome.

“Next week will tell the story — that’s for sure,” Shane said.

 

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