FARMINGTON — The Regional School Unit 9 board of directors voted Tuesday to recommend a $33,897,272 budget for the 2017-2018 school year, a 3.51 percent increase over last year.

The vote comes against a backdrop of uncertainty as the Legislature continues to debate education funding levels for the coming year. The LePage administration has proposed a 2 percent decrease in education spending and elimination of state funding for districts’ system administration, a change that could push roughly $500,000 in additional costs onto RSU 9 property taxpayers. Before the vote, RSU 9 superintendent Thomas Ward informed the board that the district is unlikely to receive final numbers from the state until July.

The board’s deliberations follow two years of contentious budget fights in which RSU 9 towns rejected the board’s initial budget recommendations in favor of further reductions. Last year voters rejected the board’s $32.97 million budget proposal in a vote of 1,757-1,518. Voters later accepted the $32.75 million budget by a 37-vote margin.

Those speaking out against RSU 9 budget increases in recent years have cited a growing property tax burden on the district’s aging residents, declining populations and a shrinking number of households. In New Sharon, one of the towns that voted down last year’s initial budget, the population has declined from 1,534 in 2010 to 1,487 in 2015, according to U.S. Census data. In the same time frame, the number of households declined from 607 to 522 and the number of residents 16 years and older in the labor force dropped from 901 to 805. Even so, average income in New Sharon increased slightly from $52,295 in 2010 to $54,230 in 2015.

But in meetings with RSU 9 town select boards this year, Ward argued that the district still is digging itself out of a hole that has left it less competitive than neighboring districts as it tries to attract and retain experienced teachers. Since he started working as superintendent in 2013, Ward said, he has seen teachers and administrators with 10 to 20 years of experience leave for nearby districts where they can earn an additional $8,000 a year. Though the district has narrowed some of those salary gaps with incremental budget increases in recent years, Ward said schools still are struggling with staffing.

“Our problem was we were losing employees from all of our bargaining groups — bus drivers, ed techs, teachers, administrators — and my goal was to slowly work towards compensating these people at a fair wage so we stop losing them,” Ward said in a recent interview.

Today, Ward said, the district’s more pressing employment challenge is hiring and retaining bus drivers and custodial staff members. The district’s contract for those groups is coming up for renegotiation this fall, and Ward said the district would need to “take a hard look” at how it can add to its roster.

“We’ve got to transport our kids to school, and we’re working on a skeleton crew right now. Part of it is injuries and sickness, but we just don’t have the depth, and then we have people leave for better-paying jobs,” Ward said. “Our biggest problem is we can’t recruit bus drivers right now because we don’t pay enough.”

The district also is struggling to address other budget shortfalls as unexpected costs have forced budget freezes part way through each of the last three school years. In the last two years alone, students with $300,000 in special education needs moved into the district after its budget had been set. The district is required to provide accommodations and treatment for those students, including out-of-district placement if necessary.

Ward said the district has been developing its own day treatment programs to address student needs better in-house. That effort has saved the district about $500,000 a year. Starting this year, RSU 9 also plans to start billing MaineCare for some of its day treatment costs, which may bring an additional $300,000 to $500,000 into the district each year, Ward said.

In addition to the budget, the board voted to send a capital bond request of $317,833.50 to voters for the most pressing infrastructure projects in the district including roof resurfacing and window replacements at the G.D. Cushing Elementary School in Wilton, window replacements and sidewalk paving for the entrance of the Cape Cod Hill School in New Sharon and a boiler replacement in the district’s bus garage, among other projects. A public hearing on the bond request and an informational meeting on the budget are scheduled for 7 p.m. May 23.

The board also approved wording for an article that would allow the district to spend its state funds on school expenses, replenishing the district’s reserve funds and decreasing local towns’ cost shares.

The RSU 9 annual budget vote is scheduled for 7 p.m. May 31 on the Mt. Blue campus. The date of the referendum in which district voters will decide whether to accept the budget is June 13.

Kate McCormick — 861-9218

[email protected]

Twitter: @KateRMcCormick