SAD 75 budget could shrink, but taxes will decline only in Harpswell

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HARPSWELL — School Administrative District 75 Superintendent Mike Wilhelm walked the School Board and the public through next year’s financial challenges Tuesday in the first of three budget forums.

Tuesday’s forum in Harpswell was to be followed by one in Bowdoin on Thursday. The third will be held at Williams-Cone School in Topsham at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 6.

The fiscal 2011 draft budget is $34.75 million, a 4.1 percent decrease from the current year, and the district-wide assessment could decline 1.22 percent.

But the only town that will see lower taxes is Harpswell: 8.83 percent, for a contribution of $6.83 million. Topsham would pay $7.57 million, a 4.83 percent increase, and Bowdoin and Bowdoinham would pay $2.05 million and $2.28 million, increases of 1.15 percent and 2.67 percent, respectively.

Wilhelm SAD 75 is experiencing a revenue shortfall from the state of nearly $1.5 million, a 9 percent drop. The district will receive minimum impact aid money, reflecting the departure of families due to next year’s closing of Brunswick Naval Air Station, and it will receive less federal money, such as Medicaid reimbursement. While SAD 75’s subsidy is boosted by nearly $700,000 in federal stimulus money, those funds will not be available to schools in fiscal 2012, he said.

SAD 75’s revenue will be partly supported by a $219,000 payment from Harpswell to keep the West Harpswell School open. The town voted 906-827 last month against closing the school, narrowly opposing a vote taken last year by the School Board. Harpswell’s payment is the amount SAD 75 administrators say the district would have saved by closing the school.

Among proposed budget reductions are the elimination of a bus driver, bus aide and supplies; up to five custodian positions; a grounds position, and 10 teaching positions, due mostly to declining enrollments.

Administration would be reduced by 1.3 principals, which includes one full-time position occupied by Mt. Ararat Middle School Principal Brenda Brown. Wilhelm said Brown is retiring, and the two current assistant principals – Donna Brunette and Don Baker – will serve as co-principals.

Several members of the public expressed concern about potential programmatic cutbacks, in areas such as physical education and German language. Katrina Gelwick and Colin Cundy, two Mt. Ararat High School seniors, asked the School Board to reconsider a planned phasing out of the German program, which Wilhelm said is the least subscribed among the languages offered at the high and middle schools.

“German is still a very viable language,” Gelwick said, calling student enthusiasm in the program “huge.”

Nearly 170 students in the high and middle schools take German, Wilhelm said. He noted that the high school may also lose its Chinese program after next year, since it is funded by a grant that is expiring.

“We aren’t spending any money on the Chinese program right now,” he said. “If we want to keep the Chinese program … we’re going to have to pony up the dollars. Can we, in a time of scarcity, afford more foreign language than we’re providing right now?”

The high and middle schools also offer French and Spanish.

“In terms of the realities of the budget process and what we can provide kids, we don’t have that many options,” Wilhelm said.

The School Board is scheduled to formally approve the budget on April 29. A budget public hearing will be held May 13, followed by a district budget meeting on May 27, where the public will cast its first vote.

The public’s second and final vote will occur at the budget validation referendum on June 8.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.

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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.