ROCKLAND, Maine — Even with a nearly $2 million budget gap looming over them, Regional School Unit 13 board members rejected a proposal to merge the district’s two middle schools.
The unanimous vote came after the board held three forums throughout the district to offer information to the public and receive comments. At Wednesday night’s final forum in Rockland, and at Thursday night’s board meeting, residents said not enough information had been provided for an informed decision to be made.
Thomaston Town Manager Valmore Blastow spoke at the Thursday night board meeting, saying his town’s selectmen wanted the school board to hold off on the merger. The merger would have closed the Thomaston Grammar School.
The district had offered two options for the merger. One would have grouped fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade students at Rockland District Middle School. The fifth-grade students who are from Owls Head and South Thomaston, however, would not be sent to RDMS but remain at Owls Head Central School because of lack of space at the middle school.
The other option would have only sixth- and seventh-grade students throughout the district be educated at RDMS.
Parent Michelle Peaco of Rockland said that the district has not shown what the full cost savings and added costs for the merger would be.
Interim Superintendent Michael Wilhelm said at Wednesday night’s forum that RSU 13 has 50 more employees than the state funding formula indicates it should have, based on the district’s student enrollment. The district has old, energy-inefficient buildings. He said the closure would save money.
The merger also would help the district get a unified math program, as opposed to two separate programs now, he said. Having one middle school also would allow for more time for teachers, who travel between the two schools, to be in the classroom, he said.
Just before the board got to the middle school merger at Thursday night’s meeting, Wilhelm detailed the difficult budget scenario facing RSU 13.
He said the district is expected to have $1.2 million less in revenues for 2014-2015. In addition, he said, fixed costs are rising by about $750,000. This is the result of a 7.5 percent increase in health insurance for employees that will cost the district $300,000 and potential salary adjustments for employees that could add another $450,000. The district is in the midst of negotiating with the majority of employees.
The superintendent asked the board to give him a target for an increase in the overall budget but members were split on that issue.
Board Chairman Steve Roberts said the high tax rate in Rockland is obscene and is an economic development issue. He said higher taxes in Rockland could discourage businesses from moving there.
Board member Sally Carleton said she has a retired friend in Rockland who is spending a third of her pension on property taxes and another increase cannot be absorbed.
Board member George Emery of St. George said the board cannot continue cutting if it wants people to move to the district. He said class enrollments are increasing and that is not serving the students.
Board Vice Chairman Loren Andrews said the high taxes in Rockland are not solely due to the schools. He said the municipality also must look for solutions.
The board is expected to begin reviewing the budget later this month and vote during the first week of May.