Topsham-area school budget could shrink at last minute

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TOPSHAM — Although the School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors on May 7 unanimously approved a $38.1 million budget, a smaller spending plan will be going to voters later this month.

The fiscal 2016 budget as approved would increase total taxes in SAD 75’s four towns by $1.8 million, or 8.3 percent.

But a bill that revises charter school funding has passed both houses of the Legislature, and on Monday received the signature of Gov. Paul LePage. It reduces district expenditures significantly, Superintendent Brad Smith said Tuesday.

Under state law, students who live in SAD 75 towns and attend charter schools are reported to be attending SAD 75 schools, so the district receives subsidies for those students, according to Smith. The district in turn pays a quarterly amount to the various charter schools; that amount is about $801,000 this year, for 74 students.

The district has planned for a $401,000 increase next year, or a total of $1.2 million to cover another 35 students.

But with LePage signing LD 131, which will fund charter schools separately, that $1.2 million is to be removed from the local share.

It will reduce the budget to $36.9 million, about $700,000 more than the current spending plan. The local share will increase about $568,000, or 2.65 percent.

Next year’s budget faces two votes by the public: a district budget meeting May 21, and a budget validation referendum June 9.

If LD 131 had sunk, the existing budget proposal would have meant a $149 annual school tax increase on a typical $182,500 home in Topsham, according to the district. Harpswell would see a $131 increase on a $425,000 home, while Bowdoin and Bowdoinham would experience hikes of $191 and $165, respectively, on a $178,000 home.

But with LD 131 becoming law, voters have the option at the May 21 meeting to amend warrant articles to reflect the lower costs. The respective school tax increases on those same homes would be $63 in Topsham, $21 in Harpswell, $67 in Bowdoin and $56 in Bowdoinham.

Requested budget additions of $1.3 million include $144,000 for four special educational technicians, $139,000 for food service, and $200,000 in architect fees as SAD 75 studies whether to renovate or replace Mt. Ararat High School.

If a high school project referendum passes, the architect’s fees would be reimbursed by the state, Smith has said.

While the number of special education students has dropped, those youths’ needs are becoming more complex, he also noted. Out-of-district placements have increased, also raising costs – from about $42,000 in 2010 to $318,000 this year.

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

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.