Health-care costs add to SAD 75 tax bite

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HARPSWELL — A larger-than-expected hike in health insurance costs has increased the total proposed tax increase in School Administrative District 75 to nearly $720,000.

The tax increase for the district’s four communities, to cover a gap between revenues and expenses in fiscal year 2014, was previously estimated at nearly $500,000.

SAD 75 Superintendent Brad Smith shared the news Tuesday evening at the first of three School Board budget forums.

Tuesday’s form was held at Harpswell Community School. The last two forums will be held at Woodside Elementary School in Topsham on Tuesday, April 2, and at Bowdoinham Community School on Thursday, April 4. Both meetings will start at 6:30 p.m.

The district had planned for a 4 percent health insurance increase in building its initial budget, but heard otherwise from its provider on Monday, Smith said. As a result, the projected 2.63 percent local contribution increase has grown to 3.83 percent.

The new increase could mean Topsham’s share of SAD 75 taxes could increase about $373,000, to $7.9 million. The result would be a tax rate increase of 40 cents per $1,000 of property valuation.

In Harpswell, school taxes could increase nearly $215,000, to $6.86 million, for a tax rate increase of 12 cents. Bowdoin’s share could rise about $115,000, to $2.3 million, and Bowdoinham’s could go up nearly $17,000, to $2.46 million.

The $33.4 million fiscal 2013 spending plan approved by voters last June could grow to nearly $34.6 million.

SAD 75 expected to receive $13.3 million in subsidy from the state for fiscal 2013, but ended up getting $13.15 million. The district is projected to receive $13.9 million next year, although it also expects to shoulder most of a new burden of nearly $500,000, as a result of Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed shift in teacher retirement funding.

While the state and employees now contribute to that funding, LePage is calling for school districts to pick up about half the state’s share, according to Smith.

Among possible additions in next year’s spending plan are a new librarian, and restoration of a school resource officer, who would serve mainly at Mt. Ararat High School and as needed at Mt. Ararat Middle School.

About $260,000 could be added in special education funding to cover potential out-of-district placements, transportation and additional educational technician support.

SAD 75 plans to replace seven of 10 retiring teachers. Smith said hiring less-experienced teachers at a lower pay scale could save about $113,000, and not replacing the other three teachers, filling those posts internally or with voluntary reductions, could save nearly $166,000.

The district is also expecting to cut half the time of both a physical education teacher and an art teacher, both at the high school, as well as half a Spanish position at the high and middle schools. It is also proposing elimination of its Chinese language program.

Smith said he had heard from parents at recent meetings at each of the district’s schools that they did not want to see further cuts. Budget belt-tightening has kept  spending down in recent years, he said, and next year’s proposed budget is lower than the $36.2 million budgeted in fiscal 2010.

Bart Beattie of Harpswell, whose sophomore daughter has been taking Chinese, on Tuesday urged the School Board not to eliminate that program.

“I think we’d be very remiss in getting rid of Chinese,” Beattie said. He noted that one of the district’s core values is preparing students for the 21st century, and said China plays a significant role politically and economically throughout the world.

Smith said he would look into ways to continue Chinese for those who have already started the class, by either restoring funding or working with other school districts.

David Johnson of Harpswell, a former board member, told the panel that his advice is “no more cuts.”

Formal School Board budget approval is planned for April 25. The spending plan will then undergo two public votes: at a May 23 district budget meeting, and a June 11 budget validation referendum.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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.