Pownal, Durham face large tax hikes in RSU 5 budget

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FREEPORT — As the Regional School Unit 5 budget vote nears, state funding uncertainties remain and residents of the tri-town district are weighing tax increases with maintaining school services.

The $25.6 million fiscal 2014 budget proposal calls for a nearly 2.6 percent increase, or about $645,000 more than this year, with significant tax increases for Pownal and Durham.

Losses in state subsidies; added costs from salaries, increased enrollments and charter school tuition, and a potential retirement cost shift to local districts from the state account for much of the uncertainty and increases in the budget.

Voters in RSU 5 will also decide in June on a $17 million Freeport High School expansion that involves several additions, including adding nine classrooms and an eight-lane track and turf field.

If approved, the borrowing costs would be part of the 2015 fiscal budget, with construction likely beginning in spring 2014, School Board Chairman Nelson Larkins said.

The RSU 5 board and administrators have been holding public meetings since the initial budget rollout in late March. Public response to the budget has been mixed, Larkins said, noting that while residents support education, they are concerned about the impact on their taxes.

“Obviously there are concerns about budget increases of any kind and the different impact between the towns,” he said.

If the budget is adopted as is, Durham and Pownal residents will see property tax increases of 7.81 percent and 6.2 percent, respectively, according to RSU 5 budget figures. Freeport’s increase would be 1.69 percent.

The different increases for each town are the result of state valuation. In the latest appraisal, valuations in Durham increased, Pownal’s remained mostly flat and Freeport’s dropped significantly, compared to the others.

“We can’t do anything about that,” Larkins said, adding that only about 13 percent of the budget’s tax funding is from local appropriations, with the remainder under the state’s control. “That’s what’s affecting it.”

According to budget figures produced by the RSU’s finance department, if the state appraisals had not changed, the tax increases for all communities would be roughly the same, between 3 and 3.5 percent.

A majority of the budget is also fixed because staff salaries – which will increase by 3 percent on average and alone would require a 2.9 percent increase in the total budget, according to the budget – are bound by contracts.

“If you take wage increases out, it’s actually a reduction from last year,” Larkins said.

These figures don’t include the impact of the state pulling a majority of retirement funding, which could mean an additional $188,000 in new costs, according to RSU 5 estimates that have local taxpayers funding 70 percent of the retirement costs incurred by the district.

And while the actual amount local districts will pay will not be known until the Legislature votes on the state budget, the Education Committee has recommended the state continue to pay for retirement funding.

The budget also includes the addition of three new special education teachers, who will earn about $70,000 in wages and benefits.

To help offset that cost, the budget proposes that teachers eliminate 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.

Another potential added new cost is tuition for charter schools.

Superintendent of Schools Shannon Welsh said the official number of students currently planning to attend the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science charter school in Portland this fall has dropped to eight, reducing the amount RSU 5 will have to pay.

But the number of tuitioned students could climb back up to 13, because two students have shown interest in attending the the Fiddlehead School in Gray and three students are looking at Harpswell Coastal Academy.

The cost to pay tuition for all those students would be roughly $100,000, according to early estimates.

Formal information from those schools about how many students plan to attend is expected soon, Welsh said.

Durham board member Candace Decsipkes said she would not discuss the budget, without first checking with Welsh to see if it was appropriate for her to talk with press. In an subsequent conversation she said it is the “board’s policy to direct communication to the School Board chair” (Larkins) and refused to talk about the budget’s impact on her constituents.

Other board members from Pownal and Durham could not be reached.

The final RSU 5 public comment meeting on the budget was scheduled for Wednesday in Freeport. The board is scheduled to vote on the budget May 8, followed by a town meeting-style vote May 22, and the budget referendum on June 11.

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