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- The Forecaster
FREEPORT — With a somewhat clearer budget picture from the state, the Regional School Unit 5 Board of Directors made a conservative decision to adopt a $25.8 million fiscal 2014 budget – an increase from earlier proposals to help brace for potential state cuts.
The budget now heads to a public budget meeting on May 22.
The nearly $270,000 increase from earlier budgets reflects the board’s decision to include about $200,000 for teacher retirement payouts traditionally paid for by the state, and the addition of a $70,000 math teaching strategist to help low-performing students.
The increase also boosts the tax impact on the three towns in the district, pushing Durham’s increase to 10.5 percent, Pownal’s to 8.9 percent, and Freeport’s to 3.4 percent. The spending plan represents more than a 4 percent increase from the current, fiscal 2013 budget.
Depending on the final state budget, which could change the retirement funding structure dramatically, the district could end up using the added money in different ways.
At their May 8 meeting, based on feedback from a previous meeting, the board voted to add the teaching position and also keep money in the budget as a precaution against paying for teacher retirement.
Superintendent of Schools Shannon Welsh said that according to state funding formulas, if Gov. Paul LePage’s budget is approved as is, RSU 5 would pay 70 percent of the nearly $200,000 in teacher retirement with local money. The remaining 30 percent would be drawn from state subsidy.
Passage of the governor’s budget would also mean the teaching strategist position would go unfilled.
If the governor’s budget is not passed and teacher retirement continues to be covered by the state, the RSU 5 board would then decide either to return the money budgeted for retirement costs to taxpayers to offset taxes later, or use it to build up the contingency fund, Welsh said.
LePage has said he will remove all state funding for teacher retirement if the Legislature wants to keep funding it at the state level, forcing many school boards to plan conservatively, Welsh said.
“Now the board is going to watch and see what happens with the state regarding education funding,” she said, noting that the Legislature’s Education Committee recently sent the budget to the Appropriations Committee, with a recommendation the state pay for the full $28 million teacher retirement bill.
Another variable is tuition costs for students attending charter schools.
In RSU 5, 10 students are now planning to attend area charter schools, which is expected to cost the district $98,000.
Welsh said the number of students and the cost could change before the budget is approved by voters, with student letters of intent still waiting to be returned.
Charter school tuition costs per-pupil for local school districts vary, based the on economic and social needs of the student, but generally average about $9,000.
The annual town hall-style meeting on the budget is scheduled for 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 22, at Freeport High School. The budget validation referendum in each town is June 11.
FREEPORT — Along with the school budget referendum, Regional School Unit 5 voters on June 11 will weigh the facility needs of Freeport High School with a $17 million renovation proposal.
The final public hearing on the renovation proposal was scheduled for Wednesday night.
The conceptual design calls for renovating the school and recommends several additions, including nine new classrooms, and an eight-lane track and athletic field to replace the current grass field.
While the school is dated in many areas and is pieced together from past renovations and additions, one of the primary factors in the renovation is overcrowding.
Enrollment is projected to increase from 540 students today to more than 650 in the next decade, according to RSU 5 projections. The additions will help accommodate more students and allow for growth with a proposed 31,000-square-foot addition able to support a third floor, leaving the potential to convert student study areas into classrooms.
If the referendum is approved and the renovations are completed, the school is expected to have an 800-student capacity.
RSU 5 is one of the few school districts in the state seeing enrollment growth, school officials have said.
The proposed renovation also includes computer labs, a new entrance, reconfiguring the bus drop-off and building a new kitchen, among other items.
The turf field and track is a key feature of the proposal and will include facilities for discus, shot put, high jump, long jump, pole vault and javelin.
Freeport is one of three similarly sized high schools in Class B division that does not have its own track and field, making scheduling difficult, plan proponents have said. The new turf field will also allow for increased use, especially during rainy months.
The building, which dates to 1961, has had previous additions in 1986, 1974, 1985 and 2003, according to a report from PDT Architects, which designed the renovation. The most recent addition added six science classrooms and a performing arts center.
For more information about the project, go to renovatefhs.org.
— Will Graff