Though faced with some significant increases in expenses, such as a hike in health insurance premiums, the Regional School Unit 4 school board decided early on not to make any major cuts to compensate.
The result is an $18.2 million budget, up 2.8 percent, for 2014-15.
“They’ve made some tough decisions, knowing that it would have a very dramatic impact on the local taxes,” Superintendent James Hodgkin said. “But they really felt that this is the budget they need the taxpayers to support in order to move education forward in RSU 4.”
The budget the school board has approved, including adult education, is $494,373 higher than this year’s. Because of a reduction in state subsidy, the amount to be paid by local taxpayers would rise 9.5 percent to $8.1 million.
The regional budget meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Oak Hill High School. At that meeting, voters will have the chance to amend or adopt the budget articles approved by the school board. The resulting budget will go to a public referendum on June 10.
Officials in RSU 4 — which is Litchfield, Sabattus and Wales — had anticipated that their state subsidy would not change substantially for the upcoming year. But instead the district will receive $264,162 less, or 2.6 percent.
Upon closer examination, Hodgkin said, they realized that personnel cuts made last year played a role. Because RSU 4 has fewer employees, the state’s funding formula allocates less money to pay salaries.
“The board really took a strong stance early on that they were going to try to end that cycle,” Hodgkin said. “They were not going to make any cuts, particularly to teachers, this year.”
The school board added a teacher and an education technician to the high school to extend a special education program that exists in the elementary and middle schools. They also decided not to eliminate an administrative position, that of operations director, as Hodgkin had proposed.
A few factors drive the biggest increases in the budget. A 9.5 percent increase in health insurance premiums will increase the district’s cost for insurance by about $200,000.
The budget includes $120,000 in a new line item for a MaineCare seed payment because of a change in the way the state handles reimbursements for behavioral health, physical therapy and other services that school districts are required to provide for certain students.
School districts will be reimbursed for two-thirds of the cost of those services, but first they must provide seed money. RSU 4 Business Manager Scott Eldridge said the state has reduced subsidy payments this year because the district did not budget seed money. The $120,000 will fill that hole and also provide seed money for the coming year.
Much of the money will be reimbursed with a one-year lag time, and once school district officials get a better understanding of how much to budget, there should not be such large year-to-year changes in that line item, Eldridge said.
Another new line item is a $169,555 payment on a 15-year, $1.75 million loan from Androscoggin Bank that paid for RSU 4’s energy service contract with Siemens.
Siemens made energy efficiency improvements at the district’s schools, including the installation of a wood pellet boiler at the high school. As a result of the improvements, the school district should save about $120,000 per year on utilities.
RSU 4 will save money in a few areas, including the retirement of an old bond that paid for capital improvements at the high school. Annual payments had been about $70,000.
The district also will save money on transportation. Hodgkin said the bus drivers and Director of Operations Jim Wilkens found ways to organize bus routes more efficiently, allowing at least two jobs for drivers to be cut.
The savings from that are considerably less than the $195,000 that was estimated as the possible savings from privatizing busing.
Privatized busing resurfaced as an issue in RSU 4 this year, despite results from a nonbinding referendum in 2012 that showed opposition to the idea. The school board had received a bid from Northeast Charter and Tour Co., but postponed a vote on it this spring.
Hodgkin said the district’s attorney told the school board that the contract for support staff would not allow them to privatize busing.
The district will negotiate a new contract with the support staff union next year. Hodgkin said he does not know if the school board will seek to change the language about privatized busing.