SAD 61 trims budget to 5.7% hike to local assessments

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

Will a 5.7% school tax increase to local municipal assessments fly?

On May 21, voters will make the final decision — possibly.

Directors hope they will avoid a repeat of last year’s budget season when voters rejected two proposals.

Unlike a year ago, SAD 61 will conduct exit polls at the four polling sites to determine taxpayers’ thoughts on whether the budget should be reduced (and possible target points) or increased.

Although the school board accepted a round of Leadership Team generated cuts totaling $453,134 on Monday night to reduce the tax bite from 7.5% to 5.7%, Director Richard Merritt of Sebago is skeptical whether taxpayers will be willing to dig deeper into their pockets.

Merritt had hoped to make deeper cuts to bring the overall increase to local assessments below 5%, but in the end, found it difficult to trim the “needs-based” proposal.

In an e-mail to fellow directors, Merritt pointed out that other school systems (as reported in various newspapers) were proposing budget hikes ranging from 1.8% to 4.5% — despite the fact they, too, face unexpected expenses as the result of Governor Paul LePage’s proposal to make schools responsible for covering teacher retirement costs. Neighboring Windham-Raymond is proposing a 2.26% hike.

“A SAD 61 budget proposed increase of 7.5% appears to be out of step with local norms,” Merritt wrote. “Maybe, we should reconsider.”

One problem SAD 61 faces is 5% of the hike is being driven by factors the district has no control over.

• One, if Gov. LePage’s plan to make school systems responsible for teacher retirement contributions, SAD 61 will be forced to pay $357,550.38 — which is 100% of the cost. SAD 61 would have the second highest local contribution into the retirement fund in the state. RSU 21, which includes Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel, has the highest at $377,777 with a 86% local contribution, while Lewiston is third at $353,997 with a local contribution of 51%.

Finance Coordinator Sherrie Small said the local contribution number is generated through the state’s Essential Program and Services (EPS) funding formula. Why SAD 61’s figure is so high in comparison to other school systems is a question local officials continue t o await an answer from the state.

• Secondly, the district will be expected to pay $50,000 in interest on a federal loan used to renovate/build at Lake Region High School and Vocational Center. Initially, SAD 61 was offered a no-interest package by the federal government, but deficits in Washington, D.C. have led to local taxpayers picking up the tab.

These two expenditures represent 3.3% of the proposed hike.

• The final 1.7% involved existing employees projected salary and benefit increases.

School officials pointed out that SAD 61’s budget has been flatlined for several years and some areas of “need” should be addressed.

The Leadership Team (consisting of school principals, as well as directors of special services and vocational center) felt that reducing a proposed Pre-K to $100,000 signaled that now is not the right time to launch a new program. So, the LT removed the entire proposal from the budget.

The Leadership Team presented the following cuts Monday:

$2,019, reduction in Extended Studies;

$4,000, reduction in tutoring at LRHS in reference to an American Disabilities Act (ADA) case;

$16,520, reduction for English Language Learner, to three days a week;

$25,645, removed School Health Coordinator/Grant Writer;

$8,076, cutting the number of Academy leaders at the high school from nine to four. Principal Ted Finn said some modification in Academy make-ups enabled the cost-saving change.

$3,454, removed 10 additional guidance days, which had been included in the first Leadership Team proposal;

$19,083, removed art teacher at LRHS two days a week;

$23,387, removed alternative education ed tech at LRHS;

$6,848, removed LRMS Ferry Beach Field Trip;

$1,768, removed head teacher stipend at Songo Locks;

$1,261, removed drama club stipend at Songo Locks;

$2,019, removed student council advisor at Songo Locks;

$79,161, Pre-K teacher at Songo Locks;

$22,05, Pre-K ed tech at Songo Locks;

$1,261, drama club stipend at Stevens Brook;

$2,019, student council advisor at SBES;

$61,471, Pre-K teacher at SBES;

$22,055, Pre-K ed tech at SBES;

$32,408, cut Student Services Coordinator at the Vocational Center to half time;

$33,318, removed firefighter training instructor at LRVC;

$52,816, removed early childhood program teacher at LRVC;

$25,000, removed Pre-K transportation;

$7,490, removed LRMS projectors.

Directors did add $13,072 to keep an in-school suspension monitor at the high school. LRHS Principal Ted Finn requested the position to enable the school to follow a school board policy, which requires students to serve in-school suspensions for infractions such as skipping classes and inappropriate classroom behavior rather than out-of-school suspensions.

Finn added that he could see no other areas he could cut, unless the district wanted to take two or three steps backward after LRHS has made so many positive gains as it rebuilt its curriculum and reputation in educational circles.

The Leadership Team also added a Grade 3 teacher at Songo Locks ($51,444) in an effort to keep class sizes to under 20 students. Without the addition, classes would reach 22 to 23. Principal June Conley said larger classes would be difficult to operate because of special needs of many students, as well as space limitations based on the existing facility structure.

Adult Ed budget is proposed at $575,917 (the local share would be $319,615) — a 4% decrease.

The total proposed budget is $27,928,764. While the figure represents a 7% increase, the local tax assessment would be 5.7%.

Next up is the district budget meeting set for Tuesday, May 7 at 6:30 p.m. in the Lake Region High School gymnasium. The budget validation referendum is Tuesday, May 21.