OAKLAND — Regional School Unit 18’s budget for the upcoming year sailed through the district hearing with close to no opposition.

The hearing was held Thursday evening at the Messalonskee High School Performing Arts Center. About 40 residents from the five towns included in RSU 18 — Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney — turned out to voice their opinions on the $38,655,455.75 figure, up 2.86% from this school year’s sum.

District voters ultimately will approve or reject the budget in a June 11 referendum.

Nineteen articles on the warrant passed almost unanimously, with disagreement expressed on just two points. One person voted against allocating $5.3 million to special education. In a secret ballot, two voters rejected a proposal to raise and appropriate nearly $6.7 million more in local funds than suggested by the state’s Essential Programs and Services model. Thirty-five supported the idea.

“This model does not fully cover the costs of regular classroom instruction, special education instruction, extracurricular and co-curricular student activities, district administration and leadership, student transportation and school technology,” Moderator Bob Nutting, who is also an Oakland town councilor, read aloud Thursday evening.

Residents vote on a warrant article at the Regional School Unit 18 district budget hearing Thursday evening at the Messalonskee High School Performing Arts Center in Oakland. Morning Sentinel photo by Meg Robbins

The only article that received any comment from the audience was the 19th and final one, which would authorize the formation of the Kennebec Alliance Regional Service Center. That comment was: “What is it?”

“We’ve belonged to the Kennebec Alliance for decades,” Superintendent Carl Gartley explained. “As of two years ago, there was new legislation that if schools don’t belong to a regional service center, they risk losing a subsidy in a administration line, which we have lost. This year for us it was in the neighborhood of a little over $100,000. The statute wants schools to partner with other local school districts to try to save money by collaboration. We’ve done that for years, but our organization at the time did not meet the letter of the law for this collaboration. So this change is just the same thing we already have. … We’re just jumping through some hoops and making it a service center. It will allow us to regain that subsidy.”

The article ultimately passed unanimously.

Nearly three-quarters of the RSU 18 budget — about $28.8 million — is used for salaries and insurance coverage for the district’s employees. The district is looking at a 2.21% increase in this area, which Gartley has attributed mostly to increases in health insurance cost.

Close to 5.9% of the overall budget, or $2,265,904.47, will go toward debt service, including paying off the $13.9 million bond voters approved in 2017 for facilities upgrades and the construction of a new athletic complex at Messalonskee High School.

Departments that are looking at the biggest increases from the current school year’s budget include regular instruction, special education and transportation. Gartley said the district needed to spend money to accommodate additional high schoolers, as the current eighth-grade class is larger than the graduating senior class. Special education funds “are skyrocketing around the state,” Gartley told the Morning Sentinel last week. The district also plans to replace three school buses instead of two this year, which is a result of timing of the leases, according to Gartley.

Proportionally, Rome will get the largest tax increase, at $71.07 more than this year per $100,000 of assessed home value; with Sidney ($70.16), China ($59.11), Oakland ($59.11) and Belgrade ($24.93) following.

While Gartley noted that Belgrade “made out the best” this year with the proportional increases, the town will fund the largest overall share of the RSU 18 budget — nearly $6.5 million, or 16.72% — if it passes in June. This is primarily a result of the high state valuation of the municipality, which borders the most lakes and ponds in the district and is home to many vacation residences. Oakland would finance 15.8% of the budget; China, 13.03%; Sidney, 11.31%; and Rome, 5.49%.

Funding is divided among the five RSU 18 municipalities in several stages. The state calculates what each town should raise for Essential Programs and Services based on its valuation, overall population and a number of other factors, Gartley noted. The state subsidy — $13.6 million this year — is applied and local debt is shared among the towns. The remainder of the budget is divided using a cost-sharing formula. The formula is 75% based on the municipality’s valuation and 25% based on the number of students it enrolls in an RSU 18 school, according to a memo on Rome’s town website from its school board representative, Andy Cook.

School board Chairman Jim Isgro, of Sidney, noted that “a lot (of the budget) has to do with the state,” rather than the school district. Increases, while not always desirable, can reflect positive changes, such as more people moving to RSU 18 towns for the quality of education, as Isgro suggested. Sidney’s town assessment rose 7% this year, reflecting more houses being built within its borders.

“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 told the Morning Sentinel last week. “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.”

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