Despite squeeze in state subsidy, Ellsworth area school budget up only 1 percent

Posted May 30, 2013, at 6:18 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Voters in the 12 towns of Regional School Unit 24 will decide on June 11 whether to approve a $36.5 million budget for the next school year.

The budget is about $367,000 more than last year — about 1 percent — but includes funding for an expected state mandate that local taxpayers pick up a larger share of state retirement costs. Without that new expense, the budget would actually be down about $31,000 from last year.

“Our finance committee started from the beginning knowing this was a challenging budget year, and they wanted to come in with a budget that had no increase,” said David Bridgham, RSU 24’s business manager, on Thursday. “But the problem we were dealing with is a $1.1 million decrease in the state subsidy, and the curveball with the new mandate on teacher retirement.”

The budget was completed after a meeting Wednesday night at Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan, at which time residents supported the district’s proposal as written. RSU 24 represents the towns of Eastbrook, Franklin, Gouldsboro, Hancock, Lamoine, Mariaville, Sorrento, Steuben, Sullivan, Waltham and Winter Harbor, and the city of Ellsworth.

The cause for the decrease in state subsidy is threefold, Bridgham said: First, there is less money in state coffers for school subsidies than in previous years. Second, RSU 24 towns are seeing declining enrollment. Lastly, increasing property valuations in the coastal towns of the district mean those towns are eligible for less state funding.

The confluence of those three factors means that while the school received $8.8 million in the current school year, it is projected to receive just $7.7 million next year.

Because state lawmakers still have not passed a new biennial budget, the school district was left estimating and projecting different scenarios that may not pan out as expected, Bridgham said. Even if the district’s budget is approved by voters, the district may have to make adjustments based on what happens in Augusta.

The school district has said in a newsletter to residents that if the Legislature votes down the shift in retirement costs — a legislative committee voted against the shift last month — the budget will be adjusted to below this year’s voter-approved spending level.

“It certainly wouldn’t be the first time we’ve woken up one morning, usually around July 2, to realize that the state subsidy we’re going to get is either more or less than we budgeted, and we just have to act accordingly,” Bridgham said.

While total spending is only expected to increase about 1 percent, the change in each municipality’s share of the budget varies. Nontax revenue and savings are expected to total about $11 million, meaning the towns need to come up with about $25.4 million, a 2.9 percent increase in the municipal bill over last year.

A town’s share of education spending is dictated by the number of students it must educate and its property value. More students may mean more state funding, while higher property value means the town will pick up a larger proportion of the total bill.

Lamoine, Sorrento and Winter Harbor would see their local appropriations decrease, thanks to decreased student numbers. Each other town would see an increase in its share, partly because of property valuations that have fared better than the rest of the state.

“Our towns are coastal, and even some of the towns that aren’t coastal have nice lakefront property, so their valuations are rising faster than the state as a whole,” Bridgham said. “In some cases, where the valuation did go down a little bit, the state valuation generally fell even more.”

Under the proposed budget, Ellsworth, which pays the largest share of local appropriation, would pay $9.9 million next year, up from about $9.5 million. Eastbrook’s share would rise 10 percent, from $652,000 to $717,000.

The proposed budget includes funding for safety and security improvements to the district’s schools, as well as expected savings from energy efficiency efforts.

Each school would be outfitted with buzzer/camera entry systems, which would allow staff to see visitors before they are allowed in the building. The district also plans to install “panic buttons” to provide emergency access to law enforcement.

Residents will vote on the budget at their local polling place on June 11.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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