SKOWHEGAN — Residents of the six towns of School Administrative District 54 can expect a 2.9 percent, or $954,525, increase in the school budget this coming year if the spending package is approved at the district budget meeting later this month.
Assessments for local taxes are projected to increase about $192,500 or 1.36 percent, SAD 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry said. SAD 54 towns are Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Skowhegan and Smithfield.
Colbry is scheduled to present the budget to Skowhegan selectmen Tuesday night during their regular meeting.
The proposed budget, which was approved May 1 by the school board, calls for $33,849,236 in spending for education, transportation, salaries, administration, maintenance and special education.
Colbry said there are no layoffs in the proposed budget, no increases in insurance premiums compared to last year’s 11 percent hike, and a decrease in the district’s debt service by about $57,500. Base salaries for employees will not change this year, he said.
“I think the board has done an exceptional job in trying to balance the economic realities we live in here today with the taxpayers to meet our obligation to provide the best opportunity we can for kids,” Colbry said. “They work hard at this.”
He said the district’s increase in regular and special education instruction line of about $495,290 is due “almost entirely” to new charter school tuition costs and last year’s shift of Maine State Retirement costs from the state to local districts.
Colbry said $964,000 in charter school tuition payments and transportation costs have been added to the district budget over the past two years. He said there are 79 SAD 54 students going to the Cornville Regional Charter School and 23 high school student attending the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences at Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield.
“We’re paying almost a million dollars to the charters,” Colbry said. “That money is the state aid and the local share we would have used to reduced taxes or would not have had to cut as many things out of the budget the last couple of years.”
Colbry said according to Maine law, the charter school students are still counted on the books as SAD 54 students for state funding and additional local taxes to be raised. That money follows the student from the district school to the charter school. He said it averages $8,000 to $9,000 per student.
Justin Belanger, one of the founders of the Cornville charter school, said during hearings last year that charter schools are public schools and are not allowed to charge tuition for students. So in order to maintain school choice, funding has to come from the state and district taxes, he said.
Colbry said there is legislation proposed to channel charter school money, gradually over time, directly to the charter schools and not through the local school districts.
Colbry said there also are projected increased costs in contracted and purchased services, up about 15 percent because vendor costs have gone up. Spending for equipment, supplies, materials and books also have increased about 8.5 percent. Colbry said that increase this year is necessary.
“We did that purposely — we’ve cut so much from books, computers, that the board felt it was important, we had to put some of that money back in,” he said. “That money is really a return of some of the money we cut in the past.”
On the plus side, an increase of about $406,000 in state subsidy received late last year has been applied to the new budget to off set local property taxes. SAD 54 is projected to receive about $18 million in state essential programs and services funding, also know as general purpose aid to education, in the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
The district also has enjoyed a cost saving from the installation last year of a new pellet-burning boiler system for the high school, the middle school and Bloomfield Elementary School. The district saved about $260,000 by switching from oil to pellets, a figure that is offset by bond payments of $106,000 per year for 15 years for the cost of purchasing and installing the boiler system.
Colbry said 17 or 18 district employees are retiring this year, including high school Principal Rick Wilson, who has been on the job in Skowhegan for eight years. Savings from peak salaries enjoyed by long-time employees will not be felt until next year, Colbry said.
The district budget meeting is set for 7 p.m. May 27 in the high school gymnasium. The budget validation referendum will be June 10, in each of the district towns.