FAIRFIELD — A $26.3 million budget proposed by the School Administrative District 49 school board is almost 5 percent larger than last year’s spending plan and could mean property tax increases in the district’s four towns.

The proposed budget for 2015-16 is $1.2 million larger than the budget passed by voters last year.

If approved as proposed, it would mean a more than 10 percent tax increase in Fairfield, a 13 percent increase in Clinton and about 15 percent increases in Albion and Benton.

Depending on where they live, a homeowner with property worth $100,000 might expect to pay between $214 and $237 more in taxes per year, according to school board projections.

School board members say that the budget increase is being driven by cost shifts from the state, such as payments for teacher retirement and the cost of sending students to charter schools.

In an interview Tuesday, School Board Chairman Steven Grenier, from Albion, stressed his frustration with the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage for forcing local school districts to swallow more costs while reducing the amount of state money the district receives for education.

“The school system isn’t being greedy,” Grenier said. “None of this increase is because of what we want.”

The school board unanimously approved the proposed budget at its April 16 meeting, and it hastily scheduled a series of public information meetings in the four towns over the next two weeks to explain the proposal.

The annual budget meeting will be held May 7, and voters in the four towns will go to the polls May 19 in a budget referendum.

Grenier said the meetings will give the board a chance to get in front of the public to explain the spending plan, which could meet a challenge at the polls.

“We’re going to have a hard time passing this budget,” he said.

The first meeting, in Benton on Tuesday night, was sparsely attended. The three residents who came were outnumbered by school board members presenting the budget. Another meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the elementary school in Clinton, and two others are scheduled for next week in Albion and Fairfield.

Benton Selectman Antoine Morin, who attended the informational session Tuesday, agreed with the decision to raise teachers’ wages but worried that the district was not thinking about how to address district budgets over the long term.

“You’ve mentioned a number of dynamics that aren’t going to change,” Morin said, referring to state requirements.

“Are you going to ask people to pay more because this is the way we’ve always done it?” he asked.

According to budget materials from the school board, one of the largest spending items is a $461,000 budget for payments to charter schools.

Last year, SAD 49 budgeted only about $55,000 to cover tuition for students attending charter schools.

The actual cost to send 19 students was about $192,600, almost four times the budgeted amount. In some cases, students attended the charter school for only a few days, but the district was forced to pay for a half year’s tuition, Grenier said.

In addition, the town also has to pay $382,000 to the Maine state teacher retirement account, about $149,000 more for health insurance and $100,000 more in worker’s compensation costs.

The district also is boosting spending on personnel, increasing wages by about $694,000.

At the meeting Tuesday night in Benton, Grenier said some of that increase is the result of a substantial raise in first-year salaries for new teachers, up to about $36,000. The increase is aimed at staying competitive with districts in the area.

The district also plans to spend more than $180,000 to replace two school buses.

While it is spending more, state aid to SAD 49 is projected to decrease by $412,300 from last year.

Additionally, the amount of money the state is asking the district to raise locally in order to receive state aid has gone up by about $312,000, according to Grenier.

That means that the four towns actually will have to raise more than $1.8 million in tax dollars to cover the budget gap.

Despite the scale of the budget, the board isn’t considering cuts to the staff or programming, although some positions will go unfilled when current employees retire, Grenier said.

Since 2008, the school district has cut almost 63 positions, he said. As a self-proclaimed “conservative” board member, Grenier said that he has looked for cuts but doesn’t see where the school board can trim any more.

“I will not lay off any more people because of increases from the Legislature and governor,” Grenier said.

The prospect of more tax increases isn’t sitting well with district constituents, he added.

“Taxpayers are telling me they’ve had enough,” he said.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire

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