Tax increase looms for Bath-area school district

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BATH — Faced with a potential loss of more than $1 million in state subsidies, Regional School Unit 1 Superintendent William Shuttleworth and his staff are looking for ways to mitigate a large tax increase in fiscal 2012.

Preliminary numbers indicate the school district could lose more than $882,000 in flat state subsidy, from $6.7 million in the current fiscal year to $5.8 million next year. The district is also losing federal stimulus money, which totaled nearly $733,000 this year. Since RSU 1 did not spend nearly $479,000 in job stabilization funds it received, that money is available for fiscal 2012 to offset the stimulus fund loss.

“If we added nothing to the budget, kept everything as it is – with the increases that we know, like pay raises – the tax burden would be an 11.64 percent increase,” a rise from $16.5 million this year to $18.5 million next year, Shuttleworth said last week.

But a tax increase that high is something Shuttleworth said he never plans to present.

“I think that if you ever try to have a budget (with a tax increase) that went over 10 percent, you’d better have a full tank of gas,” he said, “because you’re going to have to get out of town as fast as you can.”

The total budget itself would be up nearly 3 percent, from $24.9 million to $25.6 million.

If about $1 million were cut, trimming the spending plan to a 1.26 percent decrease, taxes would still rise 5.28 percent due to the revenue decrease, Shuttleworth explained.

He said nearly 700 people responded to a district survey a few weeks ago, part of which asked people about what school elements they value most. Small class sizes, arts, computers and athletics were elements they most wanted retained, Shuttleworth said, while the most-favored cut was to close a school.

About 32 percent of responders said they supported no tax increase, while the same amount would be willing to incur a 1 percent to 2 percent increase; 12.6 percent said they could support a 3 percent to 4 percent increase; 4.5 percent could support a 5 percent to 6 percent increase, and 18.5 percent would be willing to pay whatever money is needed to maintain current programs.

Shuttleworth noted that most responders were people connected to the schools.

“The struggle is that we’ve already done … the heavy lifting in this district,” he said.

During a two-day retreat last month Shuttleworth asked his administrators to target 5.5 percent cuts.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “Almost always you end up cutting things that come closest to kids.”

The superintendent maintained that “our schools are vibrant, our kids are doing well, we’ve got great teachers, and we’re just going to have to work together to find solutions that will continue all those positive things that we have. In the end we may not be able to have all the things we have. … But the core program is going to be important to us.”

Shuttleworth said he hopes by late April to have a budget ready for a School Board vote.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 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.