GARDINER — Maine School Administrative District 11 held a public hearing Tuesday night to discuss the proposed budget of $26,824,000, an increase of $663,000 — or 2.53% — from last year.

MSAD 11 Superintendent Patricia Hopkins and Business Manager Andrea Disch explained why the budget is increasing, citing salaries, an increase in insurance and expanding the special education program. While the spending plan for the 2021-2022 school year is increasing by 2.53%, the first draft in February had spending rising by 5.4%.

Residents of the district’s member municipalities — Gardiner, Pittston, Randolph and West Gardiner — will vote on the budget June 8.

Currently, the town allocation of the proposed budget for next year is $10,607,598, an increase of 6.35% in comparison to last year.

There were only a couple of spectators in the virtual meeting audience. Only one asked a question, seeking a break down areas of the budget, primarily related to salaries. The audience member asked for reasons for increases to system and school administration salaries and benefits.

This chart shows the impact to taxpayers if the Maine School Administrative District 11’s proposed 2021-2022 spending plan is approved by voters June 8. Screenshot via Zoom

Disch and Hopkins said 80% of the MSAD 11 budget goes to salaries. The system administration budget line is proposed to increase by $25,811 and school administration by $79,003. Disch said part of the school administration increase is the addition of a half-time assistant principal position at Helen Thompson school.

“Keep in mind, many staff are residents of MSAD 11,” Hopkins said, “so dollars go back into the local economy.”

The state’s minimum starting salary of $40,000 for educators is part of the reason why salaries are increasing, Disch said. In the future, she noted, if the minimum wage for schools increases to $16 per hour — MSAD 11 currently pays an hourly minimum wage of $12.50 — it would be “quite the increase.”

Disch said even though the district received $58,000 more in state subsidies for next year, the insurance rate for staff went up by 4%.

“For every 1% increase, it is approximately $32,000,” she said. “For 4%, that took up the additional state funding this year.”

Gov. Janet Mills has proposed a state budget that would include public school funding to 55% of essential service costs, a promise approved by voters nearly two decades ago that has never been kept. Disch said expenses not covered by state funding are paid for through the local allocation to the school district’s member municipalities.

If the state provides funding at the 55% level, she said, it could potentially result in a decrease in the local share for towns.

This chart shows the impact for the Maine School Administrative District 11 budget if the state Legislature approves a proposal to provide more funding for public schools. Screenshot via Zoom

If Mills’s proposal is approved, MSAD 11 could receive up to $608,000 more in funding. The district’s Finance Committee has already discussed using $358,000 of that to reduce the town allocation and impact on taxpayers. The rest of the money would be put into a capital reserve account, upon voter approval.

MSAD 11 also expanded its autism program. Currently the program is for students in kindergarten through grade two. The district wants to expand the program to grades three, four and five, “in hopes we reduce out-of-district requirements,” Disch said.

The cost for special education this year is $4,335,121 and the highest budgetary increase at $282,059 — or 6.96%.

“When a special education student has an IEP (individualized education program) and the district cannot provide to their IEP, we have to send students out of district,” Disch said. “ We have some students where their tuition is approximately $100,000 in a single year, and for one student, transportation was $75,000. A single IEP can cost up to $200,000 in a single year, so we are hoping to reduce that.”

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