SAD 75 board OKs budget amid turbulent teacher salary talks

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TOPSHAM — About 130 School Administrative District 75 teachers crowded into Thursday’s School Board meeting to demand salaries more in line with surrounding districts.

Wearing crimson “Red for Ed(ucation)” shirts, they at first filled the hallways then flooded into a meeting room at Mt. Ararat High School to show their desire for better pay as the board adopted a fiscal 2020 budget.

The School Board approved the spending plan, 9-4, with Chairman Tyler Washburn, and members Alison Hawkes, Molly Perry and Andrea Imrie opposed. The $41.7 million budget, up roughly 10 percent from current spending, includes $500,000 as a placeholder for teacher raises, and nearly $28,000 for retirement and Medicare costs.

Salary negotiations may continue past two upcoming public votes on the document: a district budget meeting May 23, and a budget validation referendum June 11.

Talks between the School Board and Merrymeeting Teachers Association have stalled, and third-party mediation is scheduled to begin May 3. If that fails, a fact-finding stage could be followed by arbitration.

It is against the law in Maine for teachers to strike, according to Nicole Karod, president-elect of the teachers’ union and a seventh-grade science instructor, and Marybeth Latti, a math intervention specialist, who were among the teachers at the April 25 meeting.

The $500,000 placeholder, if spread evenly among the staff, would mean an average $1,800 raise for each teacher, they said.

“That’s what we’ve always gone with,” Karod said, “and it’s just not enough.”

Increases in neighboring districts include $2,700 in Regional School Unit 5 (Freeport, Durham and Pownal), and $3,000 in Bath-area Regional School Unit 1, Latti added. Brunswick is still in negotiations, she said.

Mt. Ararat High School teachers with 15 years’ experience and a master’s degree earn $54,300, compared with nearly $61,500 in Brunswick, $62,900 in RSU 1, and more than $64,300 in Freeport, according to Karod. The gap for 20-year teachers with a master’s degree is even wider, she said: $58,800 in SAD 75, more than $69,6005 in Brunswick, $76,700 in RSU 1, and about $68,400 in Freeport.

Meanwhile, 20-year teachers at Mt. Ararat have seen just under a $1,400 pay increase over the past 10 years, compared with $9,700 at Brunswick High School, nearly $18,200 at Morse High School, and about $10,700 at Freeport High School.

“It hasn’t even matched the cost-of-living increases,” Latti said.

“We’re uniting to say that we need more,” Karod added.

Whether the placeholder will be enough is unknown, they said.

“Until we figure out something in negotiations, we won’t know all the details of that,” Karod said. “We want to be able to keep our teachers and to have a contract that attracts teachers, and that keeps them, because we’re losing them to other districts.”

“Wouldn’t you go for $10,000 more a year, 2 miles away?,” Latti asked.

Holly Blanc, a math teacher at Mt. Ararat Middle School who has been interviewing new teachers, said this was the first time the interview committee had to discuss whether the candidates they met with would be willing to be “part of our amazing community for thousands of dollars less.”

She could make $20,000 more at RSU 1, but chooses to stay with SAD 75 out of love for the community, Blanc said. SAD 75 was one of the most competitive districts when she started 18 years ago, but “is no longer,” she added.

“Things have changed – in the world, in the state of Maine, in our communities – that are making us as teachers need more from you,” Blanc told the School Board.

The $500,000 placeholder is a 16.6 percent hike – $71,000 – over the fiscal year 2019 cost of salary for the same staff, Business Manager Mark Conrad said.

If mediation brings about more than $500,000 for salary increases after the budget is approved, the spending plan cannot be changed, Vice Chairwoman Linda Hall said. The funds would have to come from other places in the budget, such as transportation and educational technicians, she said.

The district would have to confer with its attorney on whether contingency funds – intended for unforeseen circumstances – could be used, Conrad said.

Because the May 23 district budget meeting warrant will be open, voters will have the ability to either increase or reduce any spending.

Before voting against the budget last week, Washburn expressed concern about the impact of added spending on SAD 75 residents struggling to make ends meet.

In Bowdoin, where he lives, an average $117,000 home will see a property tax increase from the school budget of $780 in the past six years, he said.

“My concern is, this is a town where over a third of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch,” Washburn said. “I understand that there are many needs in the school, but I don’t know in my heart if we’ve met our responsibility to balance what we need, versus what the people can afford.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 780-9085 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Carmen Palmer, a math teacher at Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham, was among those who lined up at the April 25 meeting of the School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors to argue for more competitive wages.

About 130 School Administrative District 75 teachers turned out at the School Board meeting on April 25 at Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham to stress the need for higher wages.

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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.