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State cuts, new costs dictate RSU 5 tax increases

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State cuts, new costs dictate RSU 5 tax increases

FREEPORT — Higher costs and state curtailments frame the Regional School Unit 5 budget laid out by administrators Tuesday night.

The fiscal 2014 budget proposal calls for a 2.58 percent increase to $25.6 million, or about $645,000 more than this year, with Pownal and Durham seeing significant tax increases compared to Freeport.

Superintendent of Schools Shannon Welsh said added costs from increased enrollments, charter school tuition, loss of state subsidy and a potential payout for teacher retirements forced the administration to work creatively on the budget.

The budget increase could grow even larger if the state pulls retirement funding from local districts – an unprecedented move recommended in Gov. Paul LePage's budget that would shift the burden onto property taxpayers.

With 70 percent paid for with local tax dollars, administrators calculate the budget could increase 3.35 percent, or an additional $188,000.

"We have to be good stewards of financial resources and hold ourselves accountable. but still provide a quality education," Welsh said after the budget was presented. "This is not the budget we want to be presenting to you."

Residents in Durham and Pownal will see property tax increases of 7.81 percent and 6.2 percent, respectively, if the proposed budget is passed, according to RSU 5 budget figures. Freeport's increase would be 1.69 percent.

The rates are based on the state's valuation in April 2012. Durham's and Pownal's proportional valuation increase was much greater than Freeport's, resulting in much larger tax hikes.

"It's important to note that whether we are an RSU or stand-alone systems, the impact would be the same," Welsh said, referring to the state's Essential Programs and Services model formula, which bases the amount of state aid on property valuation.

One of the most significant new cost increases in the proposed budget comes from tuition for the state's new charter schools.

More than two dozen RSU 5 students have expressed interest in attending Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland, Welsh said. 

If the students ultimately attend the school, which is slated to open this fall, the district will have to pay about $110,000 in tuition, based on enrollment of 12 students, according to Welsh. The actual number of students who enroll from the district won't be known until after April 1.

"I'm not opposed to charters. I'm opposed to the state not funding public schools," Welsh said. "It means we have to cut our budget or ask our taxpayers to increase what they pay locally to support the schools."

The largest expense in the budget for instruction is the addition of three new special education teachers, who will earn about $70,000 in wages and benefits. Welsh said adding these instructors is essential for fulfilling the district's goals and needs for special education.

To help offset that cost, the budget proposes that teachers cut out one of their planning, non-teaching days, reducing their at-school work days by one day per year to 182.

In addition, administrators will be forced to take a one-day furlough.

Enrollment increases also continue to be a factor for the RSU.

While many other school districts in the state have seen their enrollments decline or remain flat, RSU 5 will see a projected increase of 3.7 percent in the next school year, according School Department projections, up from 3 percent this year.

Enrollments increased significantly this year and are projected to increase at all schools in the RSU next year, except at the Morse Street School and the Mast Landing School. The largest increase is projected to be at Pownal Elementary School, where 15 more students are expected next year.

And although most of the budget areas increased, the RSU reported $145,000 in facilities maintenance savings in heating fuel, electricity and debt service.

Along with the school budget, voters will also have to decide on a $16.9 million school renovation project.

While the school budget deliberation is just beginning, Welsh said officials will conduct several forums for people to educate themselves and comment on the budget.

"There were some very, very difficult decisions made in presenting this budget," she said. "We're going to spend a lot time helping people understand our budget."

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.