TOPSHAM — The Maine School Administrative District 75 School Board approved a $41.7 million budget Thursday night that included $500,000 for increases to teacher salaries, but a roomful of red-clad teachers at the meeting said it isn’t enough to bring their pay in line with surrounding districts.

Merrymeeting Teachers Association President-elect Nicole Karod told The Times Record on Wednesday that, spread across the district, the 16.6 percent increase over last year’s salary increases would amount to a little less than a $2,000 raise, “which is what we’ve always settled for, and it’s not enough,” she said. “Especially when our surrounding districts and ones that we compete with, are getting an average of about $3,000 (increases).”

Mark Conrad, the district’s business manager, told The Times Record he hasn’t calculated how that $500,000 for salary increases will impact the tax rate. District voters will vote on the budget in June.

Mt. Ararat High School math teacher Carmen Palmer started teaching in 1984. She was hired by MSAD 75 in 1990 when “it was the second-highest paid school in the state of Maine,” Palmer told the school board Thursday. “It is a shame that it has decreased to the level it has.”

She feels the board should encourage the kind of longevity she’s had within the district.

Having served on interview committees, “I have seen the effect (pay) has had on hiring teachers,” she said. “Our pool of qualified teachers has drastically decreased. This is a serious problem and we need to really think about how this affects our district as a whole. We definitely need contracts that will attract the best.”

With 20 years of teaching under her belt, “I am a person who would benefit from going to Bath to earn $20,000 (more) a year,” Mt. Ararat Middle School teacher Holly Blanc said. “I don’t want to go somewhere else because I love this community, but things have changed in the world, in the state of Maine, in our communities, that as teachers are making us need more from you.”

The only factors determining a teacher’s salary are their experience and their degrees and credits, Conrad said.

The association argues that a teacher with 15 years of experience and a master’s degree earns $61,454 in Brunswick, $62,898 in Bath and $64,316 at Freeport; but would only earn $54,300 in MSAD 75, which includes Topsham, Harpswell, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham. The district argues that MSAD 75 provides a better health benefits package than surrounding districts.

With 20 years of experience, the gap widens further. The Merrymeeting Teachers Association argues such a teacher would earn $69,635 in Brunswick, $76,688 in Bath, and $68,431 in Freeport. That same teacher in MSAD 75 would make $58,800 – a difference of close to $20,000.

Frank Wright, a newly appointed school board member from Harpswell, asked what happens if the district has to pay more than $500,000 as a result of mediation.

“The budget does not change,” Finance Committee Chairwoman Linda Hall said. “Money would be taken from something else.”

Four members of the 14-member board opposed adopting the $41.7 million operating budget, which represents a 10 percent increase over the current spending plan. The total amount of the spending plan raised through taxes would increase $2.1 million, or 8.8 percent.

Board Chairman Tyler Washburn didn’t support the proposed budge, saying it asked for too much in taxes.

Washburn said in his town, Bowdoin, the average home was valued at $117,000. Since 2015, the property taxes on a home of that value have increased $655 because of the school budget. The budget that was passed Thursday is projected to add $125 next year.

“Many others in my town and in some of the other towns will find significantly larger increases, and my concern is this is a town where more than one-third of the students qualify for free-and-reduced lunch,” he said. The percentage of students eligible for free-and-reduced lunch is a common measure of childhood poverty in schools.

Topsham saw $619 in increases over the past five years and faces $149 for the average priced home. Bowdoinham had a $616 increase over the last five years and faces another $179 added to the tax bill for an average valued home. Harpswell faces an 11 percent tax rate increase of $206 for an average valued home.

“I know that this may be the best budget that we can get under the circumstances and I also recognize that a large share of what’s in the budget is out of our control, such as the new debt service kicking in on the high school,” he said.

While there are a lot of reasons to support this budget, “I don’t know on my part if we’ve met our responsibility to balance what we need versus what the people can afford,” Washburn said.

Residents in Topsham, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham and Harpswell will attend a districtwide budget validation meeting May 23 to finalize the budget district voters will weigh at the polls in June. While in the past the budget amounts could only be amended to smaller amounts at the district budget meeting, the board decided after debate Thursday to allow voters to amend budget totals up or down.

“We’ll be there,” Karod told The Times Record Thursday, referring to the May 23 district wide budget meeting.

Karod said she told teachers as they left the meeting, “We should be very proud of what we did here night. We had our voice be heard, we are united and we are ready to move and and we’re not done fighting.”

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