SAD 61 hopes to avoid budget rejection in 2012

After seeing two proposed school budgets rejected at the polls this past spring, Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Kathleen Beecher has decided a different approach is needed.

Dr. Beecher wants to create an open exchange of ideas between taxpayers and town officials on how to make the school system more efficient. SAD 61 took a positive step in that direction last week by hosting a pre-budget season workshop, which attracted selectmen, town managers and State Senators David Hastings (R-Fryeburg) and Bill Diamond (D-Windham). Maybe the most encouraging sign wasn’t necessarily the strong turnout, but instead, the tone inside the room. Probing questions were asked. Honest opinions about the state of local education were made and accepted. And, there was a genuine move to work closer together throughout the budget formation process, rather than waiting to air concerns during budget hearings or at selectmen’s meetings.

Dr. Beecher also wants a clearer understanding as to the financial impact any tax increase will have on local municipalities. Finding a balance between paying for a quality educational program while avoiding crushing tax hikes will be difficult. Taxpayer after taxpayer at the budget hearings reminded the school board just who tough it is to make ends meet, especially in the current economy. When school board reductions to the proposed budget failed to go deep enough to lighten the load on taxpayers, they revolted with a “No” vote, twice. Naples Selectman Rick Paraschak warned school officials that any increase in the school budget will fall squarely on taxpayers because there is no longer any wiggle room to make cuts on the municipal side of the ledger. Out of every tax dollar, 78 cents goes to SAD 61, while the town operates on 14 cents, Paraschak said. With general assistance and other social programs costing more, Paraschak sees the town standing on the edge of a cliff. “We’re trying our best to keep costs down knowing what our taxpayers are up against, but it is very difficult to do.” Sebago Selectman Allen Crabtree echoed those sentiments, noting SAD 61 claims 70% of local tax dollars. “We’re hurting,” he said.

Difficult times require thinking outside of the box on all fronts, from searching for ways to get more mileage out of every dollar to taking a closer look at why it is more costly to provide educational services here compared to districts 20 or 30 miles east from the Lake Region.

The superintendent has already taken a closer look at a neighboring, comparable school system, Gray-New Gloucester, to determine why SAD 61’s per pupil cost and other expenditures are higher. G-NG covers some of its costs by charging fees to participate in athletics and for outside groups to use school facilities. Presently, SAD 61 charges a pay-to-play fee for some, but not all sports. Officials are also revamping its fee schedule to use facilities. SAD 61 has also made a greater investment in putting technology into the hands of students. Each Lake Region High School students is provided with a laptop computer. Gray-NG does not provide laptops to each student. When the state financed the 1-to-1 program at the middle school level, SAD 61 officials felt it was important to keep technology in the hands of students when they moved up to the high school. Today, the tech budget checks in at close to $1 million, which raised some eyebrows, including Sebago Director Richard Merritt who pushed for a reduction in that line during the last budget debate. How much is too much? One can expect more debate on this issue in 2012.

Another area is staffing. New Sebago Director Sherry Miller has already requested from SAD 61 administration a closer breakdown on present staffing levels compared to numbers developed by the state as part of the Essential Programs and Services funding model. At Gray-NG, one principal serves two schools. Could SAD 61 follow suit? Administration is one of many areas that will receive closer scrutiny. Dr. Beecher also found that because SAD 61 operates its own vocational center, that carries a greater cost compared to school districts, like Gray-NG, which pay a fee to send students to tech training. This district started a Pre-K program years ago, financed with local money. Gray-NG recently added Pre-K, likely financed with its state aid dollars. Dr. Beecher says that since SAD 61 facilities are scattered across a big region, efficiencies are lost because of the distance. Places like Windham can save money because its middle school and high school are located on the same property.

Another big-ticket item is special education. SE Director Lisa Caron said SAD 61 has about 360 students receiving services, down from 435 about eight years ago. Still, School Board director Richard Merritt found that figure “staggering.” Some children require extensive assistance due to their disabilities. By state mandate, schools are required to provide various services, which can be expensive. Parents often want more, which Caron understands. But, she tries to hold the line, and occasionally finds herself at hearings because parents have challenged her decision regarding services. Caron says the district has a solid track record in defending its actions, recently winning two out of three cases.

What truly separates SAD 61 and surrounding school districts is what the state contributes to local education.

SAD 61’s Financial Coordinator, Sherrie Small, gave the group a crash course on the state’s complicated school funding formula — EPS — and gave an outline of the upcoming budget formation schedule. The glaring figure when comparing SAD 61 to nearby school systems is state subsidy. While some receive in the 50% range, SAD 61 receives 4.42%. SAD 61 taxpayers pick up 95.58%. Our lakes are a treasure, but also a curse when it comes to the present school funding formula. SAD 61 has lost over $6 million in state aid over the past five years because of the area’s valuation. Here are the 2011 state values for SAD 61 towns — Bridgton $1,032,250,000; Casco $611,650,000; Naples $747,750,000; and Sebago $391,700,000. Gray-New Gloucester, a two-town district, checks in at $891,800,000 and $480,350,000, respectively.

Surprisingly, there actually may be some good news coming from the numbers above. Valuations dipped from 2010, which could mean slightly more state aid. Naples Town Manager Derik Goodine suggested as a good faith effort the school district should apply any additional aid to the budget to reduce costs, not view it as “a windfall.” “Taxpayers are screaming for relief. We can’t help them,” he said. “If you (SAD 61) get a few extra dollars, give it back to them.”

Can our local politicians scrape up a few more dollars for SAD 61 by pushing for changes in the state funding formula? Both Hastings and Diamond agreed that the time might be right to seek more reforms. They suggested that SAD 61 should invite the state’s commissioner of education to a meeting to hear firsthand how crippling the current funding system is to this district. “Hearing it is a lot different than reading about it,” Diamond said. However, it will be a stiff battle because for every additional dollar SAD 61 receives means another school system is losing that $1. “Nobody wants to give up what they already have,” Hastings said. Based on the current formula, Hastings sarcastically said, “If we drained our lakes, we’d be better off.”

Another step to seek out input will be the creation of a blog on the SAD 61 website. Residents will be able to make suggestions on ways to improve the schools. With so much at stake, open conversation is essential for this region to move forward. While criticism will likely occur, energy should also be placed in the form of constructive suggestions. Give Dr. Beecher credit for asking town officials to be honest about how they feel about local education. Bridgton Selectman Woody Woodward was frank about comments he has heard from taxpayers. “People talk about the amount of money we spend on education and follow it up with ‘What do we get for it?’ They feel that if they have to pay higher taxes, they want to be sure it is worthwhile. It is easier for taxpayers to accept paying more if they are seeing good results.”

Change is certainly occurring at the high school, both inside and out. Early reports indicate the move to the “Studio” and “Academy” programs has produced promising results (see next week’s story). LRHS Principal Ted Finn has brought a high level of leadership, enthusiasm, insight, guidance and support to a school undergoing major transition. While there has been some bumps in the road — as one would expect when trying a drastically different approach while also adjusting to inconveniences caused by major building construction and renovation — LRHS appears on the right path to a brighter future.

SAD 61 found itself on the wrong path — one of discontent and sometimes mistrust — this past June. Dr. Beecher recognized it, and doesn’t want to follow that path again. She and the SAD 61 School Board appear to be on the right path by opening talks early with town officials to develop a budget that taxpayers can live with and support. We can no longer afford a “business as usual” mentality. The time has come to change our approach, especially if there is money to be saved. It is also time to seriously look at every line and make hard decisions as to what is a need and what is simply a want.

— WER

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