RSU 1 board, seeking more spending cuts, delays school budget decision

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WEST BATH — The Regional School Unit 1 Board of Directors on Monday postponed its vote on a proposed budget until next week to allow more time to find potential savings.

School Board Chairman Tim Harkins said it has been suggested that RSU 1 cut a significant amount more from the $26 million budget proposed for fiscal 2013 than it already has, in order to soften the impact to its communities.

But he said it would be difficult to make additional cuts.

“The board can’t alter the budget which serves our children, without compromising aspects of regional education in an effort to appease taxpayers, in an effort to pass the budget,” Harkins said.

He still supported asking school administrators and central office staff to revisit the spending plan, in light of the district’s recently revised cost-sharing formula, although he said he does not expect to see much change. The board will vote on the budget at 6 p.m., Tuesday, May 15 at Bath Middle School.

The board voted unanimously April 23 to change its cost-sharing formula so that a law that created the school district would apply to its entire local tax calculation. While that change would allow Woolwich and West Bath taxpayers to see substantial decreases in their share of the fiscal 2013 school costs than in a previous version of next year’s proposed budget, residents of Bath, Arrowsic and Phippsburg would shoulder a greater share of expenses.

“Since the inception of the RSU, the board felt that what they were doing was legitimate and fair to the RSU 1 communities,” Harkins said regarding the cost-sharing formula. “Some would and have disagreed with that.”

The board voted to change the formula after receiving a new legal opinion on the matter. “From a cost and timing standpoint, it did not seem prudent to seek additional advice,” Harkins said.

He noted that the School Board would have “gladly welcomed” an opinion that supported the formula it has used the past four years. “It would have reinforced our intent and allowed for a smooth transition into this year’s budget cycle,” he said.

“Under the circumstances,” Harkins said, “the board felt – with pressure from the municipalities to address the situation immediately, and a legal opinion in hand that challenged the method that we had been using – we had no choice but to act immediately. If we had disregarded that opinion, I think it (would have) put the board in further jeopardy.”

But he said the method RSU 1 had been using was “in some respects, more equitable to the district,” than the revised formula.

Harkins said the School Board sought advice on the matter from the Maine Department of Education, but that while the department has been helpful, it “has not always been clear, and the information that they presented to us has not always been consistent. We’re hoping at some point to receive some definitive written language about how we should proceed.”

The Bath City Council voted May 2 to have a city attorney send a letter to the School Board expressing the council’s “reaction to, and displeasure with, the recent board action to change the funding methodology,” Chairman David Sinclair said at the time.

Earlier that night the council had discussed options in light of the change, such as working with a committee made up of representatives from the school district communities on another cost-sharing formula. Another option could be for Bath to withdraw from RSU 1.

Harkins said RSU 1 is working to form a committee to examine the cost-sharing method for future years. He said he is confident that if the district’s municipalities are willing to work together, “we will find a successful solution before our next budget cycle.”

Through the cost-sharing method RSU 1 has been using, Bath would be assessed $8.3 million next year, a 1.5 percent increase over the current year. Under the revised formula, that assessment would climb to $8.6 million, a nearly 5.7 percent increase.

The RSU 1 budget would have to be reduced by about $682,000 for Bath’s assessment to remain at the original, 1.5 percent increase, City Manager Bill Giroux said last week.

The local contribution from RSU 1’s five communities – the funds raised through taxes – has been split into two pieces: a minimum amount that the state requires, and a portion over and above that amount. State subsidy to the district has been presented on a form based on the essential programs and services model.

The other local contribution piece is the additional amount each community must raise, beyond the EPS model. That contribution stipulates a cost-sharing formula based on equal thirds: student population, state valuation of a community and the community’s population in the most recent census.

Harkins said last month that in 2008, when it was time to approve the district’s first budget, there was ambiguity about how the EPS formula should be applied to the local share. The School Board voted unanimously at that time to apply the formula to just the additional funds, and to allocate the other required costs according to state policy. The district had used that breakdown ever since.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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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.