$ Pinch trickles down: Proposed SAD 61 budget up 7.5%

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

Deficits at the state and federal levels will certainly result in a trickle-down effect for local taxpayers.

SAD 61 is tentatively proposing a $28,057,791 budget, which represents a 7.5% increase.

Two driving forces include SAD 61 covering $350,000 as the result of Maine Governor Paul LePage proposed shifting of teacher retiree payments from the state to the local school budget.

Secondly, the federal government seemed like a knight in shining armor, offering up a no-interest loan as part of the funding to renovate and build new space at Lake Region High School.

Well, if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Because of federal deficits, SAD 61 is now looking at paying interest on that $9.2 million loan (total project and bonding was $13.8 million). Out of the $562,000 in interest on that bond each year, SAD 61 had to pay $60,000 while the federal government subsidized the rest. With the recent federal budget cuts, SAD 61 received word that the subsidized credit will be reduced between 5 to 10%. SAD 61 budgeted for 10%, which totals $50,000. Now, instead of paying $60,000 per year in interest on that bond, SAD 61 will be paying $110,000. The bond is for 16 years.

Those two unexpected costs represent an initial jump of about 2% — SAD 61 Finance Coordinator Sherrie Small told directors at Monday night’s public hearing on the proposed budget that each percentage increase represents about $260,000.

Meanwhile, the four area towns making up SAD 61 continue to receive bad news as well. As part of Governor LePage’s proposal to balance the state’s budget, he wants to suspend municipal revenue sharing for 2014 and 2015 for a savings of about $98.9 million.

The local losses would amount to:

Bridgton, $363,3488

Naples, $285,000. Naples Town Manager Derik Goodine said that figure could reach as high as $400,000 if other revenue streams dry up.

Casco, about $185,000. Casco Town Manager David Morton predicted the overall figure could reach $285,000. “Coupled with a sizeable increase in our contribution to the school district, I anticipate a great deal of taxpayer angst,” Morton said.

Sebago, unavailable at press time.

Add to the loss of revenue sharing funds the possible elimination of the Homestead Property Tax Exemption, and local towns will face stiff revenue reductions that will result in either deeper cuts in services (Bridgton’s Budget Advisory Committee last week recommended nearly $300,000 in cuts across nearly every department) or increasing local taxes.

Casco School Board Director Elaine Heuiser understands the budget proposed by the district’s Leadership Team represents “true needs,” but she is doubtful that taxpayers will embrace a 7.5% hike when most are either fighting to keep their homes or just barely making ends meet at the moment.

Flat no more

Since 2008–09, SAD 61 has developed budgets containing miniscule increases:

2008–09, $25,331,558

2009–10, $25,431,571

2010–11, $25,216,486

2011–12, $25,882,500

2012–13, $26,119,080

Partly, the need to stay lean was due to a major drop in state subsidy aid from $3,082,458 to $834,133 by 2011–12. State funds bounced back a little — $1,613,163 (which included a curtailment of $114,58) in 2012–13. The anticipated subsidy for 2013-14 is $1,580,648.

SAD 61 was also aided by a federal school improvement grant ($1.6 million) to help turn around Lake Region High School, which was one of 10 Maine schools landing on a failing to show yearly improvement list.

Now, those funds are drying up, yet school officials hope to keep in place some of the components which enabled LRHS to raise test scores, as well as develop a dynamic curriculum, which other schools are now taking a closer look at.

Initially, the Leadership Team (consisting of top school administrators) was asked to develop a “needs-based” budget. Their proposal checked in at $28,400,884, which represented an 8.74% increase (see sidebar list below).

Some key components of the package include:

• Addition of three elementary school teachers — a fifth grade teacher at Stevens Brook, a first grade teacher at Songo Locks and a third grade teacher at Songo Locks — for a cost of about $155,0000. The additional staffing would keep class sizes to about 18. Without additional teachers, class sizes would range from 20 to 23.

• Keeping various positions created by the federal grant at LRHS — including a Student Advocate, Academy leader stipends and a Transition Summer Academy for eighth graders as they move on to high school — at $90,000.

• New programming through the Vocational Center — Firefighter/EMT teacher, Early Childhood teacher and a Student Services Coordinator — would cost $151,000.

• Two Pre-Kindergarten programs, $210,000.

SAD 61 Superintendent Dr. Kathleen Beecher pointed out that the district is seeing more and more youngsters unprepared to enter the school system. One reason could be that due to the bad economy, parents may lack the ability to pay for children to go to pre-schools, where they would learn to identify colors and numerals, to developing other social skills, and instead send them to daycare, which may lack in such instruction.

• Middle School Literacy/Math Instruction/Intervention Coach, $66,662.

The school board’s Finance Committee shaved the list by $343,093 to reduce the proposed budget to $28,057,791 — a 7.5% increase (see sidebar story for where cuts were made).

Key cuts included reducing the elementary teacher proposal from 3 to 2; reduce Pre-K to $100,000; remove the new LRVC teaching positions; and eliminate the LRHS in-school suspension monitor.

H.S. Principal Ted Finn informed directors that if the monitor is eliminated, a policy change must occur. If a student skips a class or misbehaves in the classroom, he or she is given an in-school suspension — the student reports to a certain room at LRHS and spends time reading or doing homework. Under this scenario, a monitor is needed to oversee the students.

Finn praised his teaching staff for how they now handle classroom issues, which has greatly decreased the number of suspensions. He noted that if the monitor position is axed from the budget, he would need to return to the practice of giving students out-of-school suspensions.

One piece of good news is SAD 61 will close the books on debt owed on Songo Locks. The final payment of $254,500 was paid inn 2012.

What remains on the books?

• Stevens Brook, $382,054 annually to 2020.

• Lake Region Middle School and fields, $205,344 annually to 2019.

• Lake Region High School, Vocational Center, bus garage/instruction building, $1,521,095 annually to 2026, 2030 and 2031.

Budget impacts

Each year, Rick Paraschak makes a similar appeal. Having served on the school board, he knows how difficult it is to balance the ability to educate children with the ability to pay for those services.

As a selectman in Naples, Paraschak also knows taxpayers continue to struggle with paying for more (town and school taxes) with less (either stagnant incomes or actual losses).

This year, however, could be the straw that breaks taxpayers’ backs. Both schools and towns expect to lose state and federal aid, which will force cutbacks or tax hikes.

“I would appreciate it if you could look over the budget again to see if other cuts can be made,” he said during the public hearing. “Every increase in your budget goes to our mill rate.”

Casco Town Manager David Morton credits the school board for its hard work, especially trying to balance two interests.

“I cannot intelligently second guess their choices, but can offer some thoughts and observations,” he told The News. “The 7.5% of an increase in the SAD 61 budget may prove to be problematic for the district. I am concerned that an increase of that size will set the district budget up for rejection by voters. As an outside observer and one without the board’s understanding and knowledge of the district, I would suggest that given all the problems between state and federal interrelationships (funding) with the school district, I would hope the district would consider not implementing any new programs at this time and take a much harder look to see if existing programs are cost effective and need to be continued (such as those programs implemented with funds the district accepted when the high school was declared to be underachieving). I understand that certain funds/grants are now exhausted and taxpayers are expected to pay the freight.”

Based on an economy that remains sluggish, Casco Director Phil Shane questioned whether this is the year to start a Pre-K program?

“We need to eliminate some things from this budget,” he said.

One area that could save the SAD 61 some money is to redistrict, Shane said.

“It makes sense if a kid is spending more time in the classroom than on a bus and saves the district some money at the same time,” Sebago Director Richard Merritt said.

Redistricting is an idea that will likely be discussed in the future, as well as whether to close Sebago Elementary.

Casco Director Donna Norton suspects that if the school board presents the budget as it stands at 7.5% hike, “it will be coming back at us.” If the proposal has any shot of passing, Norton believes, the school board will need to make a hard sell to taxpayers — educate the public as to why it is important to keep all the components in place.

Directors also discussed the possibility of holding some type of exit polling after the referendum vote to gauge voter response — what the public thinks should happen next if the budget fails.

Director Heuiser added that while people may believe what is being proposed is a “need,” she says a “no vote” still could occur because of taxpayers’ inability to dig deeper into their pockets.

“There are some people who simply can’t pay for it. Some programs will have to wait,” she said. “Families need their money too.”

Directors discussed the possibility to seek out additional cuts to reduce the increase to 4.5%, but many felt such a big reduction (over $700,000) would prove devastating to educational services to local children.

So, directors will take a week to look at their spreadsheets and binders full of financial figures to see if any cuts can be considered before the group finalizes the budget.

 

Leadership Team ‘Needs Based’ Budget

Price tag: $28,400,884

Increase in new positions: about $1,000,000

Increase over last year: 8.74%

• Keeping positions created through the federal school improvement grant (which was $1.6 million) to help turn Lake Region High School around after it was named as one of the state’s 10 under-performing schools, $90,000.

Positions include Student Advocate/HS Completion Coordinator; Academy Leader stipends; grade 8 to grade 9 transition summer academy.

• LRHS Ed Tech III for Alternative Ed Program, $23,387

• LRHS In-School Suspension Monitor (three days per week), $13,072

• Three elementary teachers — grades 1, 3 and 5 — to keep class sizes around 18, totaling approximately $155,000

• Lake Region Vocational Center Firefighter/EMT Teacher, Early Childhood Teacher and Student Services Coordinator, $151,000

• Two Pre-Kindergarten programs (new), about $210,000

• District-wide (half-time) Literacy/Writing Coach (new), $26,602

• School Health Coordinator/Grant Writer (half-time, new), $25,645

• Resource Officer, $10,000 (to add to possible grant funding, new)

• Elementary Intervention (new), $10,145

• Additional Gifted & Talented services for grades 6-12 (new), $20,270

• One English Language Learner Coordinator/Teacher (new), $41,299

• Middle School Literacy/Math Instruction/Intervention Coach (new), $66,682

Finance Committee Recommendation

Reduction: $343,093

Proposed budget with this cut: $28,057,791

Increase over last year: 7.5%

• Cut School Health Coordinator/Grant Writer, $25,645

• Cut one of the three additional elementary teachers, $51,444

• Cut Firefighter/EMT teacher, $33,318

• Cut Early Childhood teacher, $52,816

• Cut elementary stipends (Songo Locks — Head Teacher stipend $1,768, Drama Club $1,261, Student Council Advisor $2,019; Stevens Brook — Drama Club $1,261, Student Council Advisor $2,019

• Cut secondary gifted & talented art (stipend, after school), $4,038 to $2,019

• Cut In-School Suspension Monitor at LRHS, $13,072

• Cut guidance, 10 additional days, $3,454

• Removed Lake Region Middle School Ferry Beach field trip, $6,848

• Reduce Student Services Coordinator to half-time, $64,815 to $32,408

• Reduce Pre-K to $100,000

Budget Timeline

• Monday, March 25, 6:30 p.m., Great Room, Lake Region Vocational Center, SAD 61 board members will discuss various recommendations.

• Monday, April 1, 7 p.m., Crooked River Adult and Community Education, board to vote on budget and sign warrants.

• Tuesday, May 7, 6:30 p.m., Lake Region High School gym, district budget meeting.

• Tuesday, May 21, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., budget validation referendum vote in Bridgton, Casco, Naples and Sebago.

 

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