Budget meeting OKs $33.4M in spending for SAD 75

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TOPSHAM — Next year’s $33.4 million School Administrative District 75 spending plan received strong support at a district budget meeting last week.

The May 24 meeting, which ran a little more than an hour, drew fewer than 50 registered voters from SAD 75’s four communities – Topsham, Harpswell, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham – leaving many seats empty at the Orion Performing Arts Center.

The budget goes to a final referendum vote on June 12.

Most warrant articles elicited little or no comment, although some residents expressed concern that the fiscal 2013 budget – which is down $817,000, or 2.4 percent, from this year, and eliminates almost 25 jobs – has been cut too much.

The budget, as proposed by the Finance Committee, includes the reduction of 11.9 full-time equivalent positions: classroom and special education teachers, a librarian, nurse and speech and language therapist. It also includes the reduction of 12 support staff positions – including education technicians, secretaries, bus drivers and custodians – and an administrative position.

The cuts amount to “fewer people having to do even more work and try to maintain a quality education,” Superintendent Brad Smith said last week. “We have a responsibility both to provide quality education that our students deserve, and to balance that with the ability of our local citizens to pay for that.”

Patrick Moore, director of special services, said 673 students were identified for special education in 2006, versus 458 in 2011, “so the reductions in special education really have been consistent with the reductions in the number of students that we have in special education.”

The decline in next year’s budget is due largely to losses in state and federal aid, as well as money no longer available from the federal Education Jobs Fund program.

“I think this budget is too low,” Jim Byrne of Topsham said, adding later that he felt the district is slipping in terms of education, and that “education is not a cost; it is an investment. … We’ve considered moving, because we’re so concerned about education. What kept us here is the quality of the teachers.”

“When we looked at what it would take to maintain all of the programs that we currently have … we were looking at either making cuts of a magnitude that we chose to make, or increasing the tax rate significantly,” Smith said, adding that the School Board, Finance Committee and administrators, in developing a recommended budget, “have to consider what they think it is that our communities are willing to support, and that’s a tough call.”

Elinor Multer, chairwoman of the Harpswell Board of Selectman, criticized the meeting’s closed system, which allows voters to reduce, but not increase, spending for specific articles.

“I would like to take this opportunity to suggest that it’s time to do it differently,” she said.

The amount to be assessed through taxes is $18.8 million, an increase of about $98,000, or 0.5 percent. Business Manager Steve Dyer has said it is SAD 75’s first tax hike in four years.

Topsham’s assessment would decline 3.6 percent to $7.5 million, due to a drop in its state valuation. Other towns should see increased assessments: Harpswell, 2.31 percent to $6.6 million; Bowdoin, nearly 6 percent to $2.2 million, and Bowdoinham, 4.45 percent to $2.4 million.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.