OAKLAND — Regional School Unit 18 is advancing a $38.7 million budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

The district’s school board signed the $38,655,456 warrant at a meeting Wednesday night after approving it on April 24. There will be a district budget hearing on May 16 in advance of the June 11 vote.

RSU 18 has one of the lowest proposed budget increases in central Maine, at 2.86 percent. Waterville’s proposal is up 5.74 percent from last year, Winslow’s is up 4.51 percent and Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54’s budget is up 3 percent. Madison’s School Administrative District 59 has come up with a smaller increase, at 1 percent more than its current figure.

Superintendent Carl Gartley  Morning Sentinel file photo by David Leaming

RSU 18 includes eight schools and serves Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney.

Of those municipalities, Rome would get the largest proportional tax increase, at $71.07 per $100,000 assessed home value, followed by Sidney ($70.16), China ($59.11), Oakland ($55.73) and Belgrade ($24.93).

Superintendent Carl Gartley said it was difficult to say how these town-level figures would affect individual taxpayers in each municipality.

“(The increases per $100,000 home) are based on the assessment for the whole town,” he said. “For instance, Sidney’s assessment is up 7%, but there are a lot more homes being built, so I’m very curious to see what an individual tax bill will look like. … When a resident gets a bill, it won’t come close to that.”

Gartley noted that after the state calculates what each town should raise for essential programs and services and local debt is factored out, the school district develops a cost-sharing formula for the remainder of the budget. According to a memo from Rome’s school board representative Andy Cook, funds are allocated 75 percent based on a town’s property valuation and 25 percent based on the number of students enrolled in an RSU 18 school.

“Rome took a hit this year; there’s no question,” Cook said, later adding, “From my perspective, public education in Maine and in RSU 18 is a bargain. Frankly, I think we should be spending much more on public school education, but we are where we are.”

Cook declined to talk in more detail about town allocations and referred to his memo, posted on Rome’s town website, for more information. In that document, Cook attributed the town’s rising contribution to the district to a 19-student increase over two years and “relative property values (that seem) to be increasing versus the other four towns.”

Jim Isgro, chairman of the RSU 18 school board and a representative from Sidney, said he “(does) not view the increases as a problem” for the district’s taxpayers.

“The school district doesn’t control all the elements,” he said. “A lot has to do with the state, and the biggest drivers are property valuations and student enrollment. It varies from year to year. (Sidney) is just one of a couple to see tax increases this year.”

He agreed with Gartley that the rising figure for Sidney reflects overall satisfaction with RSU 18 and a bump in people moving to the town.

“We have a lot of new building here, and that’s great to see. Young families are populating the school district, and I’d like to think that a lot of families come to this area specifically because of the school district,” Isgro said. “We used to know that to be true. I was on the board in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and a lot of folks used to tell us that.”

Cathy McKelway, a school board member from Belgrade, said that as a taxpayer, she was happy to see low numbers for Belgrade’s expected contribution this year.

“Belgrade usually complains that they pay more, but this year they made out the best,” Gartley noted.

RSU 18 is requesting a total of $1,075,066 more than its budget for the current fiscal year. Roughly 58 percent of this increase, Gartley said, would go toward employees’ salaries and benefits. This amounts to $624,145.

“Health insurance increases are a big part of that,” he said.

Another large chunk of the increase stems from accommodating more high schoolers, as this year, “there is a bigger eighth-grade class than senior class,” according to Gartley.

The district also has proposed an increase in special education funds, which “are skyrocketing around the state,” Gartley said, adding that RSU 18 plans to allocate about 13.72 percent of its budget to special education, compared to the statewide average of 16.73 percent. “We’re still low in that area, and should (spend) more,” he said.

The transportation department also is seeing a slight bump from the purchase of three school buses, when in past years the district has purchased two.

“The majority of that increase is just timing on the bus leases,” Gartley said. “We have five-year leases (on a total of) around 35 or 36 buses. We try to buy three a year.”

There is a 5.42 percent increase in the “regular instruction” article, but Gartley said that “those numbers are skewed” because it reflects the state’s request for schools to move technology such as laptops and iPads from “instructional support” to “regular instruction.” There is still a roughly $530,000 increase in the “regular instruction” line with technology factored out.

Gartley, Cook and Isgro all said they are pleased with this year’s budget.

“It’s a very good budget,” Gartley noted. “It’s responsible; it’s reasonable. If you’re doing less than that, you’re making cuts — and we’ve still done that. We can control spending and we have, which is why our cost per pupil is lower and our (overall budget) increase is lower (than those of other districts in central Maine).”

We’re keeping the teacher-student ratio down and academics are going up,” Isgro said. “The board has been spending a lot of time with that. We’re seeing payoffs, and more are coming along in the future, so we’re pretty proud of that. … The folks that I have heard from are very pleased with our district at this point. … I think we have a good, solid budget and good school system.”

A districtwide hearing on the RSU 18 budget is scheduled for 6 p.m. May 16 in the Messalonskee High School Performing Arts Center.

 

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