Last minute health insurance savings allowed the Regional School Unit 38 school board to reverse cuts proposed by administrators in the 2014-15 budget.
The $15.6 million budget approved by the school board will receive its first public vote at the regional budget meeting at 7 p.m. in the Maranacook Community High School gym. At the meeting, voters will approve the amount of each budget article for the ballot referendum on June 10.
The budget is $110,207 less than this year’s, a decrease of 0.7 percent. The school board had set a goal of reducing spending by $150,000.
They chose the $150,000 target because that was the cost of educating residents of Phoenix House, a residential substance abuse treatment program for adolescents. The state funded the entire cost. RSU 38 will not be the educational provider for the program next year, so reducing the budget by $150,000 would mean that other spending is flat.
To meet that goal, the school board considered some proposals from the administration that met with public opposition.
Foremost among those was the idea of moving fifth grade to Maranacook Community Middle School, which would have allowed the district to eliminate two teaching jobs required by a large cohort of fifth graders at Manchester Elementary School and uneven class sizes among the other three elementary schools in Mount Vernon, Readfield and Wayne.
“The administration and some members of the community feel very strongly that it would enhance the educational opportunities for the fifth grade, and it would allow fifth graders to have more access to extra programs that already existed at the middle school,” said school board Chairman David Greenham, who represents Readfield. “But there was some very vocal opposition to that decision, so we didn’t do that.”
After rejecting that proposal, the school board voted to research the idea as a possibility for 2015-16 or beyond.
The school board also added back a job they had considered cutting for a technology integrator for the elementary and middle schools. That person helps teachers and students make full use of the district’s Maine Learning Technology Initiative iPads and other technology.
The decision will allow the high school technology integrator to continue working in that building full time instead of having to split time among all the schools. Some of his time, however, may go toward picking up a couple of technology classes that were taught by another teacher whose job was cut, Finance Manager Brigette Williams said.
The school board reversed cuts related to fifth grade and technology integration, which totaled about $103,000, after finding out that health insurance would cost about $90,000 less than they expected.
The administration had projected an 8 percent increase in health insurance premiums but received no increase from the Maine Education Association Benefits Trust.
“That was huge,” Williams said. “That was a major piece of good luck for our district.”
Greenham said it’s hard to feel good about the budget because the board started from a position of deciding what to cut instead of considering new investments. They felt pressure to keep spending flat because the budget passed by only 34 votes last year.
“We kept it within the realm of the zero percent increase,” Greenham said. “And we’ve done so without laying off lots of people or cutting any significant programs.”
There are some cuts, though. In addition to the high school teacher, the board eliminated jobs for two education technicians, a middle school teacher, one day of music instruction and a half-day of art instruction.
The board had considered changing middle school sports to an intramural program, but instead they reduced a receptionist at the high school to four hours per day and increased activity fees at both the high school and the middle school.
The portion of the budget to be funded with local taxes will increase by $182,872, or 1.7 percent.