State disputes cost estimates for new RSU 15

Posted Jan. 05, 2009, at 8:17 p.m.

Brewer teachers and staffers make more than their counterparts in the four neighboring school districts that are part of proposed Regional School Unit 15, so projected costs for aligning salaries in the planned consolidated district are considerable, local officials say.

Education Commissioner Susan Gendron says she has serious concerns with the RSU 15 planning committee’s figures, which show a $2.74 million increase in education costs over the first three years.

“I do not agree with the estimates,” she said in a December letter to committee Chairman Kyle Casburn. The committee’s estimates “fail to take into account several factors.”

Gendron says it is a mistake to say all contracts will go to the same salary schedule, adding that “the law requires a common contract, it does not require that salary scales be identical across the new RSU.”

The figures in the draft plan are comprehensive and accurate projections of realistic costs, Casburn said on Monday.

“We both can argue until the cows come home about what we think will happen in the [contract] negotiations, but nobody knows,” Casburn said on Monday. “I think our numbers are pretty accurate.”

Brewer, Dedham, Orrington, SAD 63 and CSD 8 are working together to create RSU 15 under the state’s new school consolidation law. SAD 63 serves Clifton, Eddington and Holden, while CSD 8 serves the communities of Aurora, Amherst, Great Pond and Osborn.

Residents in the 10 communities will vote Jan. 27 in a thumbs-up or thumbs-down referendum about joining the new consolidated school district.

Three public information meetings about the plan for RSU 15 are scheduled this week for residents to educate themselves before casting their votes later this month. Orrington school leaders are gathering at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 7, at Center Drive School, and SAD 63 officials will hold a public hearing at 6:30 p.m. Wednes-day at Eddington Elementary School.

Brewer’s public hearing is 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 8, at the Brewer High School library. A meeting also is planned in Dedham for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 13, in the Dedham School gym.

While consolidating the central offices of the school units in the proposed district would save about $400,000 annually, those savings would be more than offset by projected increases, according to the drafted plan. The budget projections are based on assumptions that the salaries of teachers, education technicians, office, jani-torial and other school employees would become uniform districtwide once the new RSU 15 district is formed.

Contracts for teachers and other staff in the five school districts expire this year or next, except for a handful of school leaders, including Brewer principals, which expire in 2011.

Casburn said most of the teachers in the proposed RSU 15 are employed in Brewer, and “they are not going to vote” for a smaller salary.

Jim Rier, director of finances for the Department of Education, said on Monday that voters need to study the plan before casting ballots on the school consolidation later this month. He said that many of the RSU planning committees across the state “were concerned with cost increases … instead of restructuring” and focused on those increases.

Many of the planning committees did not consider cost savings associated with consolidating services such as busing and special education, he said.

Gendron also said that once the new school unit is created, the state is expected to adjust the amount of state funding it provides, which should help to offset the additional costs of implementing the RSU 15 reorganization plan.

“The plan does not take into account the adjustments that will be made in [the] labor markets area in the state Essential Programs and Services formula for teacher salaries,” she said, adding later, “We are confident … that the adjustment will be to the new RSU’s benefit and could reduce the perceived additional costs signifi-cantly.”

The exact EPS labor market adjustment cannot be figured until the new school unit is created, she said.

Casburn said that extra funding, which is not guaranteed, would be good, but added that from what he’s hearing, “the state is probably going to flat-fund us for the next couple of years.”

Local school officials are dedicated to saving funds, but with the projected increases in education costs under the RSU 15 consolidation plan, Casburn said he doesn’t expect any of the 10 communities to endorse it.

“Those [draft plan] numbers are absolutely as good as you’re going to get given the perimeters set by the state,” he said. “Regardless of what the commissioner thinks, in our situation the numbers don’t work.”

A copy of the RSU 15 draft plan is available at the Brewer School Department Web site, breweredu.org.

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