After grappling with the possibility of deep staff cuts under a flat-funded budget, School Administrative District 49 has instead proposed an increase of 1.5 percent, or $367,145.
The proposed budget amounts to about $25.14 million, an increase over the current year’s budget of about $24.77 million. Voters from the district’s towns of Albion, Benton, Clinton and Fairfield will have the opportunity to amend individual budget articles during a district budget meeting on Monday, May 19. Primary voters will decide whether to approve the budget in a district-wide referendum on Tuesday, June 10.
Increased spending will not result in additional services, said Superintendent Dean Baker, because fixed cost increases and a reduction of state support have caused continued cutbacks at the district, which has lost about 50 positions over the last 10 years.
Health care costs alone have increased by 9.5 percent this year, Baker said.
While the budget is increasing 1.5 percent, a reduction in other revenue sources means there is a disproportionate effect on the amount local towns will be asked to pay.
In Albion, the increase will be 4.5 percent, or $56,580; in Benton, the increase will be 2.4 percent, or $42,462; in Clinton, the increase will be 3.6 percent, or $65,887; and in Fairfield, the increase will be 4 percent, or $150,969.
Fairfield Town Manager Josh Reny said that, while Fairfield’s share is increasing by 4 percent, it won’t translate into a 4 percent tax hike for residents.
“For Fairfield that doesn’t necessarily mean the tax rate will increase by that amount,” Reny said. “Due to new investment in the town and a slightly larger tax base the increase in the mill rate could end up being smaller, if it changes at all.”
Reny said that the real issue facing Fairfield’s voters, who will vote on the town’s municipal budget at Town Meeting Monday, May 12, is that state policies are putting more of a burden on property taxpayers.
Fairfield’s share of the proposed budget, $3.8 million, is about 30 percent higher than the $3 million it paid just five years ago.
Reny said the pressure on municipal budgets continues to mount.
“Recent tax increases have been buffered by the town cutting expenses, but there’s nothing left to cut without a noticeable decrease in services,” Reny said.
One piece of the puzzle for the school’s budget has been a cost shift in teacher retirement costs. Under the change, which was implemented by the state legislature last summer as part of a two-year $6.3 billion budget, local school districts have to pick up $29 million more in the retirement costs of their teachers.
The shift was accompanied by an overall $45 million increase in state funding meant to offset the change.
Baker has criticized the move, saying the district received a short-term funding boost while being saddled with recurring additional costs that will extend far into the future.
Charles Betit, the director of collective bargaining and research for the Maine Education Association, said in an email that the move actually benefited SAD 49.
“In two years, SAD 49 will have taken on $600,000 in new retirement costs,” Betit said, “but will have received nearly $1.3 million more in state funding over the two years than they received in 2012-13.”
The SAD 49 budget has increased over the past few years, from a low of $22.9 million in 2010, which was a decline of more than $800,000 from the previous year.