Regional School Unit 1 tax hikes range from 6% to 24%

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BATH — The total tax assessment in Regional School Unit 1 could increase 7.09 percent next year, to $18.6 million.

The increase, up from the 6 percent estimated late last month, is due in part to larger-than-anticipated health-insurance costs.

The district had planned for a 4 percent hike in those costs, but now faces an 11 percent increase. RSU 1 had also expected to receive an estimated $8.6 million subsidy from the state, but now looks to get $8.46 million.

The total projected budget of $27.7 million for fiscal 2014 could increase 6.6 percent from this year. After offsetting revenues are subtracted, the remaining $18.56 million must be raised through taxes.

Under a new cost-sharing formula that will assess the RSU 1 communities on a per-pupil basis, Bath, West Bath and Woolwich could see significant school tax increases: 6.2 percent in Bath, to $9.1 million; 24 percent in West Bath, to 2.7 million, and 16.4 percent in Woolwich, to $3.6 million.

Arrowsic could see a tax reduction of 2.7 percent, to about $480,000, and Phippsburg school taxes could decrease 10.6 percent, to $2.7 million.

Superintendent of Schools Patrick Manuel on Monday said more than 40 positions have been reduced or eliminated since 2008 in the school district, and that an initial projected budget increase of 9.71 percent is now down to 6.6 percent.

Of the potential $1.7 million budget increase, he said, $1.4 million is for mandatory expenses like salaries and benefits, which amount to $18.4 million of the $27.7 million total spending plan.

Total benefits, which comprise 14.7 percent of the spending plan, could rise about $634,000, to nearly $4.1 million. That increase includes $354,000 that RSU 1 might have to pay toward teacher retirements, because Gov. Paul LePage has proposed shifting the expense to school districts across the state.

Discretionary, or newly proposed, expenses total about $303,000. Among new positions that would be funded are four new educational technicians, which RSU 1 Business Manager Ruth Moore has said are needed due to a larger number of special education students, along with a school resource officer to be based at Morse High School.

A pre-kindergarten program, which currently has 97 children across the district, is also proposed to expand to 110 slots, and a new pre-kindergarten classroom would be created in Phippsburg. A new district-wide maintenance person is also proposed.

Several people at a public budget hearing at Woolwich Central School on Monday also spoke in favor of adding a certified health teacher at the middle school level. They cited concerns about issues students face – substance abuse, depression and sexual activity – and their desire for adolescents to be educated to make better decisions.

The cost is estimated to be $65,000 for a full-time position, and has been on the priority list for fiscal 2016. If expanded to a 1.2-time position, to better facilitate students at both Bath Middle School and Woolwich Central School, the estimated cost would be $78,000.

Parents also expressed concern about the size of the current fifth-grade class at Woolwich Central School, which has one teacher for 28 students. They asked that a new teaching position be created for next year. That job could also cost about $65,000.

Jeannie Harrington, who has a fifth-grade child at the Woolwich school, said she and her husband believe smaller class sizes are more beneficial to students and teachers.

Large classes are “not supposed to happen in our small Woolwich school community. Twenty-eight individuals, 28 needs, 28 unique learning styles. … Too many students for one class, and too many for one teacher, whether we’re in a budget freeze or not,” she said.

But David King, a Woolwich selectman, urged the School Board to do the best it could to reduce the budget’s impact on taxpayers.

He noted that his town’s school taxes are projected to increase nearly $510,000, compared to the town’s municipal budget of $1.4 million, “so (the school assessment) is a little more than a third of our entire municipal budget. There is no way we can offset any part of this … increase.”

Another forum will be held at the Fisher-Mitchell elementary school in Bath on April 22. The budget will then go to two public votes: a district budget meeting on May 28, and a budget validation referendum on June 4.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or 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.