Students from Oceanside High School in Rockland load on to buses after the first day of school in this BDN file photo.

ROCKLAND, Maine — Just as Regional School Unit 13 was finding its footing after a messy district consolidation, an increase in special education costs and the unexpected loss of state aid that was given to the district by mistake have opened a major budget hole.

The RSU 13 school board is scheduled to vote May 9 on a $31,250,000 budget for the 2019-20 academic year, which is up about $2.2 million from the current budget. The budget approved by the school board will be presented at a May 23 public hearing and go to voters June 11 for approval.

The nearly 8 percent budget increase will mean that taxpayers from the five communities that comprise the district will see taxes go up, though district officials are not yet certain just what the impact in each town will be. RSU 13 serves students in Rockland, Thomaston, South Thomaston, Owls Head and Cushing.

The proposed budget also eliminates about 20 positions throughout the district. While RSU 13 Superintendent John McDonald said some of these eliminated positions will be absorbed through retirements or resignations, layoffs are likely.

“It’s necessary,” McDonald said. “When we’re faced with such an increase, such an impact on the taxes, I can’t responsibly put a budget out there without looking at everything we possibly can.”

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Special education costs typically increase from one year to the next, but McDonald said he’s never seen anything like the nearly $1.4 million increase in special education funding included in the proposed budget.

“We’ve seen sort of an alarming trend of an increase in students coming into schools [requiring special education services],” McDonald said. “But it’s not just the number of students, it’s the complexity of issues they present.”

While a student might have a learning disability, he or she could also have behavioral issues or mental health disorders, such as anxiety, McDonald said. Regardless, all of these students would require special education services.

About 24 percent of the district’s students receive some type of special education service, according to RSU 13 Business Manager Peter Orne.

For the past two years, Orne said the district has under budgeted for special education, meaning the district has had to tap into its surplus to pay for mandated services. Unfortunately, when it comes to special education funding, there is not much the district can do to curb spending.

“There is no fat in the special education budget at all,” McDonald said. “We’re talking about required services. The [district] is required [by the state] to provide these services regardless of whether or not we can pay for them.”

But if the jump in special education costs wasn’t enough to throw off the budget process, in November, district officials were notified by the state that they needed to repay about $624,000 that the Maine Department of Education had erroneously given the district in its subsidy.

The repayment is the result of confusion related to a survey that McDonald completed in the summer of 2017 regarding a pre-kindergarten program, which had been started through a Department of Education grant.

As the result of the survey, which McDonald interpreted was for the overall goals of the pre-kindergarten program, the state mistakenly provided funding for student enrollment figures that were more than double the actual enrollment.

Orne said the Department of Education denied the district’s formal request to waive the repayment. While it may be possible for the district to repay the $624,000 over two years, right now it has to be budgeted as if it will be repaid in full during fiscal year 2020.

In addition to the increase in special education funding and the repayment to the state, fiscal year 2020 is when the district had planned to increase its annual debt payment by about $400,000, Orne said. With the increase, RSU 13 is budgeted to pay about $2.6 million in debt service during the next school year.

At the beginning of the school year, the district opened Ash Point Community School, which consolidated two existing elementary schools. Renovations are also underway at Oceanside High School in Rockland.

“I think there’s going to be a perception out there that, ‘OK, they spent all this money on buildings.’ But that really isn’t the reason for the budget increase, the reason really is the large increase in special education spending and the loss of [state] revenue,” McDonald said.

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