HALLOWELL — To cut costs for Regional School Unit 2 taxpayers, Business Manager Vicki Raymond has proposed removing funding for certain positions and equipment from the proposed 2021-22 budget.

Raymond said the cost of three vacant custodial positions, with an anticipated cost of $150,000, and nursing positions and supplies could be covered by money from a third round of coronavirus relief funds.

Such strategies were among those discussed Tuesday by the RSU 2 School Board’s finance committee.

“We have had some unfilled positions, that has been the case for a year or two,” RSU 2 Superintendent Tonya Arnold said. “Since they have been vacant and we haven’t filled them, if we remove them from the budget, I agree, they would be considered under ESSER 3. You’d later want to phase them in under the regular budget.”

ESSER is the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

The coronavirus relief funds are expected to expire in 2023, so the school district would need to create a plan to phase those positions back into the regular spending plan.

School Board member Donna Seppy asked what would happen with the money saved by removing items from the budget and using coronavirus relief funds to pay for them.

Arnold said it would be “less money for the taxpayers.”

School Board Chairperson Jon Hamann cautioned against taking that action, saying there is no guarantee the district would get the grant funds and be able to use the money for what the board intends.

“We have to figure out spending before we rob from other piggy banks,” he said. “We can’t keep jumping back and forth. If the increase is too much, we have to figure out what to do.”

Raymond presented options for cuts, stemming from discussion at last week’s finance committee meeting, where an initial draft of the 2021-22 budget included a 4% spending increase.

School Board member Jeffrey Pierce said Tuesday night he could not support the budget until more spending is cut.

The budget remains in the planning phase and has not been presented to the full board. The initial draft of the 2021-22 budget called for total spending of $32.89 million, a $1.27 million — or 4.01% — increase from the revised 2020-21 spending plan amount of $31.62 million.

With the proposed cuts in Raymond’s latest proposal, the total spending is $32.6 million, an increase of $1.09 million — or 3.45%.

Raymond said a large portion of the spending hike is due to salary increases. She said, in total, salary increases will account for $900,000 in new spending in the proposed budget.

Payroll expenses for regular instruction are budgeted at $11.75 million, special education instruction at $4.65 million, student and staff support at $2.16 million, system administration at $564,916, school administration at $1.66 million, transportation at $642,052 and operations and maintenance at $1.74 million.

Teacher salaries are set in a three-year labor contract that calls for an annual 4.37% salary increase.

Budget documents presented Tuesday show the total instruction spending, which would include salaries and other instructional expenses, is proposed at $18.6 million, an increase of $805,587 — or 4.53% — from the current revised budget expenditures of $17.80 million.

That would include the costs of regular education (up 3.99% from 2020-21) , special education (up 5.89%) and other instruction (up 4%).

System administration expenses, which include district office salaries and expenses, are proposed to increase by 4.09%, and school administration expenses, which include administrative costs for the district’s schools, are proposed to increase by 5.34%.

The School Board renewed Arnold’s contract in February — through June 2023 — at an annual salary of $134,000.

After initially declining to release Arnold’s contract to the Kennebec Journal, saying it was part of her personnel file, the district has provided a copy of the public document.

For comparison purposes, Superintendent Xavier Botana of the Portland Public Schools is paid $148,000 a year.

Hamann said some of the younger teachers may see a greater salary increase to get to the new, state-mandated starting pay of $40,000 a year. He said RSU 2 created “efficiencies in teaching staff over the past five years.”

“Everything we are hearing these days about why we want to get the kids back in school is because we need the support,” Hamann said. “We are delivering instruction, but some people are missing the social and emotional part of being in school full time.

“School is more than just learning. We feed, we provide medical care and provide social work to so many kids. It’s so much more than the classroom. That’s what’s driving it. If they want kids back in school, then it costs money.”

About 85% of the $32 million budget is for salaries and wages across the RSU, according to Hamann.

When asked about Arnold’s contract, Hamann said the district has “not gone crazy on administrator increases for the time I have been involved with the budget.”

“It’s pretty average — 2% to 3%,” Hamann said. “They are barely covering the cost of living.”

The School Board only deals with the superintendent contract, while the superintendent deals with principals’ contracts, according to Hamann.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Pierce addressed the $188,000 the town of Dresden would have to raise in taxes to pay for the district’s budget.

Arnold said for property valued at $250,000, taxes in Dresden would increase about $250.

Pierce said that was “a lot,” but noted many properties in Dresden are not valued at $250,000.

Dresden Town Manager Michael Faass said records show the town’s median income at slightly more than $63,000. He estimated, however, that $55,000 might be more accurate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m worried. A lot of people have been hit hard this year, lost jobs or their businesses deemed nonessential and then lost,” Pierce said. “When I look at it from my town’s perspective, which is the only way, I’d like to see where we could make more savings.”

He suggested a cut to a software cost, since it is used on students’ iPads to help with contact tracing. It provides students’ location when they get on and off school buses. Pierce said he did not know if contact tracing would be necessary during the next school year.

Raymond said the $4,500 expense was necessary to track students and make sure they are in the “right place.”

Arnold said to use coronavirus relief funding in the budget, RSU 2 must account for the software as “contact tracing.”

Other increases noted by Raymond included $40,000 more for vehicle insurance and an extra $30,000 for the nutrition program, despite the latter’s being federally funded.

Arnold explained the federal government might pay $2 to $3 per meal, but the actual cost to make the meal could range between $6 and $11.

The budget is expected to be discussed more by the finance committee before it is presented to the full RSU 2 School Board.

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