Regional School Unit 18’s budget has stayed relatively flat this year compared to other districts in the area. Administrators intentionally used federal COVID-era relief funding on one-time improvements to its facilities. Improvements included new pickleball courts, seen Wednesday, at Messalonskee High School in Oakland. Anna Chadwick/Morning Sentinel

BELGRADE — While many central Maine school districts are facing unprecedented budgetary concerns due to a “perfect storm” of factors, Regional School Unit 18 is bucking the trend.

Many districts are seeing their budgets increase by 8% or 9% this year as federal COVID-era relief funding runs out, inflation continues trending upward, and the cost of labor rises. RSU 18’s budget next year will be roughly $44 million, a 3.4% increase from this year.

The district’s superintendent, Carl Gartley, said at a presentation in Belgrade on Tuesday night that administrators were able to avoid what he called the “funding cliff” COVID grants provided for many other districts by creatively using the money for updates to the district’s facilities.

“You don’t use short-term money for long-term planning,” Gartley said. “If I have to replace windows, while that’s in my regular budget, air quality is part of COVID grants, so I can replace those with it.”

RSU 18 oversees eight schools in the towns of Oakland, Belgrade, China, Rome and Sidney. It received around $14 million in COVID-related funds in the last four years, Gartley said, nearly all of which was spent on one-time projects rather than continued spending.

At Messalonskee High School in Oakland, floors were retiled and the library received a facelift. At China Middle School, windows and siding were replaced. Asbestos at the district’s central offices is slated to be removed within the next year.


As some schools established as many as 10 new staff positions with the funds, RSU 18 only used the money to pay the salaries of two staff members: One school resource officer and one assistant principal.

While the district worked to make budget adjustments wherever possible, a number of item lines have increased substantially. The school is scheduled to pay about $580,000 to substitute teachers, roughly 18% more than last year. Gartley said the change brings RSU 18’s substitute pay in line with other districts around the state.

The budget for school and athletic field trips also rose by 105%, which Gartley said was a district priority.

“We see (field trips) as an important part of the educational process, and an area that’s been underfunded in our budget for quite some time as well,” he said.

Additionally, Gartley said district administrators took economic trends into account with each year’s budget post-pandemic. The long-term planning has helped RSU 18’s budget keep pace with nationwide inflation.

“Our budget is up a lot less than what inflation is,” Gartley said Tuesday. “We tried very hard in the district to avoid those (COVID positions) but there was a couple things that the board wanted to do.”


Though the budget was able to remain mostly stagnant, Gartley said taxpayers may see an increase in their tax bills because the district received less money in state subsidies this year than last year.

As a result, the district is asking each town for about 8% more funding this year. In Sidney, the cost for taxpayers is slated to rise from $4.7 million to $5.1 million. In China, the district is asking for $5.5 million, compared to last year’s $5.1 million. In Belgrade, the dollar amount will increase from $6.7 million to $7.3 million.

State subsidy funding is determined through an algorithm that takes property values, student enrollment, and various other factors into account. Gartley said that this year’s subsidy amount was lessened because many town valuations went up last year.

“Town valuations went up over 11% in our communities,” he said Wednesday. “Every community is a little different, but we had very high valuation increases. That’s probably the biggest factor.”

Because the district was able to avoid a large budget increase, Gartley said RSU 18 has been able to cut its cost per student down to about $16,000 a year, which is below the state average of around $19,000. Still, the majority of RSU 18 students test above the state average for both math and English language arts, according to state data.

The budget is not yet finalized, and tax bills also will take county and municipal budgets into account. Voters will be able to approve or deny the RSU 18 budget during the June 11 primary election.

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