GARDINER — The school board of Regional School Unit 11 plans to vote on a budget Thursday that makes no major cuts.
Instead, the budget includes three additional teachers, new curriculum materials and a hefty increase in health insurance costs. At $22.4 million, the proposal is almost $1 million higher than this year’s budget, a 4.4 percent increase.
Eric Jermyn, a school board member from Gardiner who is chairman of the Finance Committee, said he wanted to avoid cuts wherever possible, even knowing that would mean tax increases in the district’s communities: Gardiner, Pittston, Randolph and West Gardiner.
“If we were going to try to get down to a flat budget for local taxpayers, we would be making tremendously damaging cuts to our programs,” Jermyn said. “We are not in a position to do that.”
RSU 11 has made deep budget cuts in recent years. The district’s previous spending peak was $21.9 million in 2011-12; the two budgets since have been lower.
As a result, Superintendent Pat Hopkins said, the budget cannot absorb new expenses necessary for next year without an increase.
“Every year we have cut and cut, and there’s just nowhere else to go,” she said.
Based on the history of health insurance claims by RSU 11 employees, the district received the highest possible rate increase from Maine Education Benefits Trust for the second consecutive year. After going up 13 percent this year, premiums will rise by 9.5 percent next year, costing RSU 11 an additional $284,000.
The proposed budget calls for hiring three new teachers. One would ease class sizes caused by growing enrollment at Pittston Consolidated School, one would expand offerings for gifted and talented students and one would teach foreign languages at Gardiner Area High School.
The foreign language department has 3.5 teachers who collectively teach French, Latin and Spanish. The courses have been elective based on district policy, but a state law that takes effect for classes starting with next year’s freshman requires all graduates to demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language to receive a diploma.
Gardiner Area High School will add more foreign language classes, probably in Spanish, to ensure students can meet that requirement.
A six-year license for a middle school social studies curriculum will cost $36,000, and a K-8 mathematics curriculum will cost about $56,000. Hopkins said the social studies teachers have had to cobble together their own materials for several years, and Business Manager Andrea Disch said it’s been at least a decade since the district last purchased a math curriculum.
One budget question to be decided at Thursday’s meeting, which begins at 6:30 p.m. at the central office on Highland Avenue in Gardiner, is how much to pull from carry-forward funds — money that was appropriated for past budgets but never spent — to reduce the amount needed from local taxes.
RSU 11 starts by budgeting $675,000 in carry-forward revenue each year, but for the past several years they have also spent an additional amount to offset reductions in state subsidy, particularly after federal stimulus money evaporated. Last year’s additional carry forward was $450,000, for a total of $1.1 million.
The board’s Finance Committee will recommend spending a total of $1 million from carry forward, which would require the local contribution to rise by 4.8 percent. Disch also has prepared a scenario with $900,000 from carry forward, which makes for a 6 percent increase in the local contribution.
The district’s carry forward traditionally came mostly from Medicaid, which reimbursed schools for services to students with disabilities. Now those reimbursements have dried up, Jermyn said, so officials want to wean the district off the additional carry forward funds and return to the base the amount of $675,000.