Children and their families gather last August as part of a groundbreaking ceremony in Skowhegan to mark the start of construction on the $75 million Margaret Chase Smith Community School. The project is not driving increases in next year’s budget, Superintendent Jon Moody of Maine School Administrative District 54 said this week. Morning Sentinel file photo

SKOWHEGAN — The construction of a new $75 million consolidated elementary school is not the cause of an expected budget increase this year for Maine School Administrative District 54, the district’s superintendent said.

Rising personnel costs and state funding that is not expected to keep up with increasing expenses will cause a projected increase of about 4.6% from this year’s budget, Superintendent Jon Moody told the Skowhegan-area district’s board of directors at a preliminary budget presentation Thursday night.

“It did become apparent this fall that the (new) school, in some people’s conversations, was being used as the reason taxes went up in towns,” Moody said. “And that’s not the case.”

Moody’s draft budget shows spending for fiscal year 2025 going up about 15.7% over 2024, from $41.84 million to $48.43 million, an increase of $6.59 million.

But much of that increase — more than $4 million of it — will be paid by state funding for the construction of the new Margaret Chase Smith Community School, which broke ground last summer and is on track to be completed by fall 2025.

The district will need to contribute about $99,000 toward a bond for the project, but local fundraising efforts, which have reached the goal of $3 million, will cover that expense fully, Moody said.

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The state will pay about 94% of the total cost of construction, and district leaders have said they are striving to make sure there is no expense for taxpayers in the district’s towns: Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Skowhegan and Smithfield.

Including the state funding and other sources of revenue, the forecasted increase in costs funded locally next year adds up to about $1.93 million, or 4.6%, according to preliminary budget documents.

“I believe that’s incredibly reasonable,” Moody said, noting that towns and similar school districts in the state are looking at much larger budget increases this year.

A 25% increase in overall state funding largely comes from the state’s contribution to the new school construction project. Otherwise, Moody said, state funding has not kept up with increasing costs because of how the state calculates valuations, poverty and other factors.

As a “status quo” budget the proposal includes little spending on new expenses, the superintendent said, but salaries and benefits are set to increase about $1.32 million next year.

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Proposed cuts largely include positions that were created as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and were expected to be temporary, though a few classroom teacher positions will be cut, too, Moody said.

It is too soon to know how the preliminary budget will affect local taxes. The impact on each of the district’s six towns will depend on how property valuations change year-to-year.

“We may come as a board with a local budget (increase) of 4.6%, which is really, really good,” Moody said. “But that could mean 10% for one town and it could mean 2% for another.”

The board of directors will finalize the budget this spring. In the next months, board committees will work through each budget line in the next months, Moody said.

Voters in the district’s towns have to approve the budget at a meeting and referendum vote, typically held in May and June.

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