BUCKSPORT, Maine — Three of the four towns that comprise RSU 25 would be asked to pay more next year under a proposed $13.3 million annual school budget that already is encountering kickback from some local officials.
RSU 25’s budget for next year would increase by $464,528 — or 3.6 percent — over the current school budget, according to the final version that has emerged from work sessions. After accounting for state aid and other revenue sources, the local contribution would increase by roughly $364,000.
Superintendent Jim Boothby and school board members said the proposed budget, which is subject to voter approval in the four towns, reflects a number of factors on both the revenue and expense sides of the ledger. One of the biggest is the fact that Bucksport used $300,000 in federal stimulus money, which is no longer available this year, to “soften the blow” on local communities last year.
Other factors include a $390,400 increase in special education costs and $262,000 in salary/insurance increases that were built into contracts. Those increases would be partially offset by $130,000 in fuel savings if Bangor Gas Co. installs natural gas lines to the schools as proposed.
“We are doing the best we can with fewer and fewer resources every year,” said Mindy Stegner, chairwoman of the RSU 25 board.
School board members will meet at 6 p.m. Monday to formally vote on the proposed spending plan. A public ratification meeting on the budget then will be held on May 23 followed by ballot box votes in each of the four member towns: Bucksport, Orland, Verona Island and Prospect.
As the RSU’s largest town, Bucksport would see the largest financial increase next year at roughly $314,500. Prospect taxpayers face a $42,600 bump in school obligations while Verona Island residents would pay an additional $16,130 over last year. Orland’s contribution, meanwhile, would shrink by roughly $9,200.
But Boothby pointed out that the majority of Bucksport’s $314,500 increase is attributable to the fact that the town’s state valuation rose. The RSU’s funding formula is based on 50 percent state valuation and 50 percent student population.
Several Bucksport Town Council members have made clear that they are not pleased with the school board’s work, however. The issue was pointedly discussed at a recent council meeting, with some councilors suggesting that the budget was an unrealistic “wish list” being imposed on taxpayers. And several council members have closely watched the board’s subsequent tweaking of the budget.
One of those members, Byron Vinton III, said that although he does not have final figures yet, Bucksport’s additional contribution could require a mill rate increase of 0.5. Vinton called such an increase unacceptable and said he hopes Bucksport voters will reject the budget on June 12 and send it back to the school board for more work.
“There is no reason why it couldn’t be [reduced] if they are willing to make some serious cuts,” Vinton said.
Responding to statements about the loss of stimulus dollars, Vinton said the school system should have done more to prepare for the loss of funding. And while he credited school board members for their work on the budget, he also suggested that they were not willing to discuss cutting additional personnel or programs.
“They have, in fact, made cuts but as is shown by the current budget, it obviously isn’t enough,” Vinton said.
But Boothby and board members point out that staffing levels have shrunk considerably in recent years. For instance, Boothby said the number of teachers has fallen from 90 to 68 during his years as superintendent while the number of education technicians has been cut in half.
Several board members said they fear the school system has become too lean.
“I want people to move into Bucksport because of the school system and what we offer,” said board member Scott Frazier from Bucksport. “I’m very concerned. I don’t want it any leaner.”
Both school and town officials remain concerned, however, about the fate of Bangor Gas’ proposal to expand natural gas lines to the schools and into downtown Bucksport. The company is evaluating whether to proceed with the expansion and Bucksport voters will cast ballots on June 12 on whether the town should contribute up to $300,000 toward the project.
If the gas lines are not installed, RSU 25 would have to defer an estimated $130,000 in planned maintenance and capital improvements next year in order to pay for heating oil. Boothby said it also likely would translate into higher fuel costs in the future because of the price disparity between oil and natural gas.