SKOWHEGAN — As the school year is winding down, district officials within Maine School Administrative District 54 are looking to finalize the proposed budget for the upcoming school year before voters have the final say in July.

A public hearing was held Wednesday for community members to go over the budget proposal. The meeting was not attended by anyone from the public, though Superintendent Jon Moody did provide some highlights to the board of directors.

The proposed MSAD 54 budget has been adjusted to reflect a 1.975% increase from the previous year, to $39,390,496. This increase, according to Moody, is a result of the following:

• An increase in Career Technical Education funding for new Commercial Driver’s License and Welding programs at Somerset Career & Technical Center; this makes up about 50% of the budget increase.

• State funding was down as a result of a loss of students in response to COVID-19, decreased poverty and increased state valuation of district towns.

• The three-year budget average shows that MSAD 54 has been responsible stewards of taxpayer money, Moody said. With an annual overall budget increase of 1.563% and an annual increase to local taxpayers of 0.768% over the last three years.

• The district has leveraged COVID-19 federal money to fund new positions to support students for next year in an effort to return all students to in-person instruction in the fall.

On Monday, a separate public hearing was held with community members at Margaret Chase Smith School, who were provided an update on what has been done so far on the project and what is to be expected in the upcoming months.

North Elementary School, at 33 Jewett St., qualified for the state’s Major Capital School Construction Programs, ranking No. 2 out of 74 schools. Completed in 1954, the school originally served students in kindergarten through fourth grade. It now serves about 165 students in prekindergarten and kindergarten.

Of the 74 schools on this list, other schools in the district were also identified: Bloomfield Elementary, Skowhegan Area High School/Somerset Career & Technical Center and Margaret Chase Smith School, all in Skowhegan, and Canaan Elementary School.

A recommendation from the MSAD 54 Building Committee, composed of administrators, architects and other stakeholders in the project, follows the recommendation from Stephen Blatt Architects and the state to pursue a consolidated elementary school “that will address the needs of the district for many years to come.”

“The goal is to do what’s best for the kids,” Moody said Monday.

Consolidating schools would add an additional estimated 400 students to the building, a total of about 660. However, going this route does not mean that all other elementary schools in the district will close their doors; Moody said that officials are exploring other ways to utilize the space.

Previously, Moody said that while the current North Elementary School site is not suitable for a new school due to the size of the property, the bus garage on Heselton Street would be relocated there.

“(This would) leave the town without any vacant buildings from a school project,” Moody said.

About 20 community and school board members gathered Monday at Margaret Chase Smith School for the hearing.

Though it’s not set in stone, officials believe the property Margaret Chase Smith School currently sits on would be the best for a new school. In order to use this site for a new school, district officials would have to work with the town to acquire land adjacent to the school, which is located in an area reserved for recreational purposes. Part of the agreement requires the school to pay for a new property of the same value to the town. If this site were to be used for a new school, the money that might have been used for purchasing land can be used to fund the movement of the fields being lost to the new school.

Community members asked questions regarding the change in traffic patterns, the possible disruptions that construction would have to both students and neighboring residents as well as a timeline for the process.

The consensus was that a better traffic system be put in place by the time the new school opens on Heselton Street. Nearby streets include Cardinal Avenue and East Street.

As for disruptions, Moody said that if all goes to plan, they will break ground by the end of 2023, take a year and a half to construct, and open for students during the fall of 2025. While some playground space may be lost during construction, teachers and students will not be displaced.

A Site Informational Hearing and nonbinding straw poll vote is planned May 19 at 7 p.m. at Skowhegan Area High School. Future meetings held in the fall will focus on academics and programming, Moody said.

MSAD 54 serves the towns of Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Smithfield and Skowhegan.

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