SKOWHEGAN — Residents of the six towns of School Administrative District 54 Tuesday night quickly approved a 2.9 percent, or $954,525, increase in the school budget for the coming year. The voting came in town-meeting style voting during the district’s annual budget meeting.
The budget validation referendum will be Tuesday, June 10, in each of the district towns.
“I really satisfied with the vote,” said SAD 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry. “I think the board did a good job, as it has in the past, trying to balance the needs of kids against the economic times for the taxpayers.”
Sixteen of the 17 articles on the budget warrant passed without opposition or discussion. Article 14, which asked voters in the only written ballot of the meeting to raise $1.16 million in additional local funds, above the state funding model, passed 43-4.
Assessments for local taxes will increase about $192,500 or 1.36 percent, Colbry said. SAD 54 towns are Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Skowhegan and Smithfield.
The 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. The spending package includes $12.3 million for regular instruction, $6.9 million for special education, $2 million for transportation and buses and $345,665 for adult education.
Colbry said there are no layoffs in the 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.
He said the district’s increase in regular and special education instruction line of about $495,290 is “almost entirely” because of 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 students attending the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences at Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield.
Colbry said the charter school students are still counted on the books as SAD 54 students for state funding and additional local taxes to be raised, per state law. 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 increased costs in contracted and purchased services in this year’s budget, 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 offset 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.