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Proponents seek budget wall around SAD 75 Chinese program

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Proponents seek budget wall around SAD 75 Chinese program

TOPSHAM — Several residents who spoke at a School Administrative District 75 workshop Tuesday strongly supported restoring a Chinese language program in next year's budget.

The current $33.4 million budget could grow to nearly $34.6 million in fiscal 2014, if approved by voters in June. Local contribution from SAD 75's four communities – Topsham, Harpswell, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham – could increase 3.83 percent, to $19.5 million.

School-related taxes in Topsham could rise nearly 5 percent, to $7.9 million; in Harpswell, 3.2 percent, to $6.86 million; in Bowdoin, 5.2 percent, to $2.3 million; and in Bowdoinham, 0.7 percent, to $2.46 million.

Budget challenges and declining enrollment in Chinese language classes were factors behind its proposed elimination.

Thirty-six high school students are enrolled in the program, which was initially funded by grants, with some in-kind funding by the district. But some of the grant funding has dwindled, and maintaining the program next year would cost the district about $35,000, according to Business Manager Steve Dyer.

Ben York of Harpswell said that when he first signed up for Chinese at Mt. Ararat High School, he expected it to be a four-year program.

"Although I am a sophomore at the school, I have still been looking at prospective colleges, and most good colleges I have found require (participation in) a three- or four-year foreign language program.

"In addition, Chinese is one of the fastest-growing languages in the world," he said. "China is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. And as the economy grows we will more and more be interacting with it as a government and as private businesses. I feel that keeping the Chinese program would much better prepare students at the high school not only for college life but for real-life experiences, interacting with other countries."

Amy Spelke of Topsham, who has two children in the district, said she was moved by the plea for the Chinese program, and would support a tax increase.

"I think it's worth it ... I would rather see us not do less with less," she said.

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

Among potential 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.

The district also expects to cut half the time of both a physical education teacher and an art teacher at the high school, and half a Spanish position at the high and middle schools.

Smith has said he had heard from many parents at recent meetings that they did not want to see further cuts; he also noted that many people do not want to see their taxes increase. Budget belt-tightening has kept spending down in recent years, he noted, and next year's proposed budget is lower than the $36.2 million budgeted in fiscal 2010.

Topsham resident Jim Byrne, who had decried this year's budget as being too low, on Tuesday praised the fiscal 2014 budget process.

"The state is shifting a lot of costs ... onto you, and you're the ones that are forced to make these difficult decisions," he said. "We can't keep cutting every year and expect to have the same quality, and expect to have people move here."

A proposed shift of teacher retirement funding and a larger-than-expected hike in health-insurance costs are among new expenses.

SAD 75 expected to get $13.3 million in subsidy from the state for fiscal 2013, but ended up receiving $13.15 million. The district is projected to receive $13.9 million in fiscal 2014, 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.

The district had planned for a 4 percent health-insurance increase in building its initial budget, but heard from its provider last week that the hike would be 11 percent.

"That's based upon how much your district has used for health benefits that Anthem has paid up," Smith said. "... We're at the higher end. So that's a hit for us."

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 alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.