OAKLAND — Preliminary budget figures from Regional School Unit 18 administrators seem to be holding the peace between the forces that clashed about proposed budget numbers last year.

State funding levels to the district have not yet been decided, which has led Superintendent Gary Smith to present two budget scenarios.

The first budget, based on early state funding estimates, is essentially flat, at $32,016,611.

That amount is an increase of about $44,000, or 0.02 percent, over the current year’s budget of $31,972,592.

The second budget scenario assumes that about $425,000 in teacher retirement costs will be shifted from the state to local school districts, as has been proposed by Gov. Paul LePage.

If that happens, Smith recommends that the district budget be increased by that amount, or 1.47 percent, to $32,441,611.

Reductions in state support, combined with increases in contracted employee wages and health care costs are among those factors which have caused the district to make cuts in developing the flat budget.

In either scenario, the district would cut programming and staffing; lose ground on maintaining buildings, buses and technology systems; and reduce the school’s reserve fund “beyond what a school system should have for adequate reserves,” Smith said.

Despite the district’s cuts, property taxpayers in its five towns — Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney — still would pay significantly more in either scenario.

The $32.4 million budget scenario would cost taxpayers about $1.5 million more than they paid this year, Smith said.

The difficult budget is still filled with uncertainties, but the broad outline, and the way that Smith has presented it, has drawn better reviews than the budget draft of last year, when taxpayers twice rejected proposed budget increases amid heated debates.

Elwood Ellis, who represents China on the district’s board of directors, said he was “a little distressed” about the proposed budget, which he said would slightly increase class sizes.

“We’re right on the fine edge of affecting children,” he said. “I don’t like that.”

Still, he said, “we’re going to have to live with it. I think the board will support that.”

Ellis said he thought Smith was working hard to address students’ needs while protecting taxpayers.

Last year, the Belgrade and Sidney boards of selectmen both took public stances against the district’s proposed budget increases.

This year, Smith’s efforts drew cautious support from members of those boards.

Sidney Selectman Brent Dugal, whose term ends this month, said his reaction so far is “very positive,” although he is withholding judgment until the numbers are more certain.

“I think Gary Smith has done a nice job in recognizing the financial position we’re all in and that he’s put a lot of hours into making what appears to be strategic cuts that have as little effect on kids as possible,” Dugal said.

Dugal, who stressed that he is speaking for himself and not the board as a whole, said the board has not yet discussed whether it will take a formal position on the school budget this year.

Belgrade Selectman Ernie Rice also said that he couldn’t speak for his board, but that his own opinion is that a flat budget would be welcome.

“If it’s flatlined, that would be a very good thing,” he said.

However, he said, if the district is hit with additional retirement costs, those costs shouldn’t be passed on to local taxpayers.

“I think it’s very unfortunate that the state government has that ability to pass their mistakes on to the school,” he said.

He said that the Belgrade board has not taken an official position on the budget.

Penny Morell was active in opposing budget increases as a selectwoman in Belgrade last year, but her term ended recently.

“As a citizen, I’m still opposed to any increase” in local property taxes, she said, a position she said is based on a philosophical belief that there are always places to cut in government.

One recurring theme during last year’s heated budget process was a problem involving communication between district administrators and budget increase opponents.

The complexity of the school budget left many in the district struggling to communicate it in an understandable way, while those outside the process sometimes said they thought their questions weren’t being answered.

This year, administrators have changed the format of the information that they release and provided a two-page “school budgeting 101” sheet that helps to walk people through the process.

“I think we’re doing a whole lot more trying to explain everything very carefully,” Ellis said.

Dugal said he has seen a difference, and he appreciates it.

“They’ve done a nice job in presenting the facts in an understandable way,” he said. “Gary has been very responsive to people’s requests and recommendations.”

While the tone of the public discussion has been respectful so far, there are still challenges ahead.

The final amount that the district will seek from taxpayers will be more certain when state funding levels are determined. When those numbers are firm, the size of the bill could draw more opposition than the current scenarios are.

On the other side, many of the district’s budget cuts have not been defined yet. Smith said various “placeholder cuts” have been assigned to budget categories, but not to specific line items. As the effect of the budget reductions on programs become more clear, district supporters could demand more funding.

On April 3, if state funding levels are announced as expected, the board will vote on whether to accept a proposed budget.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
[email protected]

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