ROCKLAND, Maine ― The Maine Department of Education is giving a midcoast school district three years to repay an overpayment that the department erroneously gave the district in its subsidy last year.
Regional School Unit 13 will not have to start repaying the $628,000 it mistakenly received for a pre-kindergarten program until next year, bringing some relief to a steep budget increase the district is facing for the 2019-2020 academic year. The regional district serves students in Rockland, Thomaston, South Thomaston, Owls Head and Cushing.
At a public hearing on Thursday, the proposed $31,176,500 budget will be presented to residents of the five towns that make up the Rockland-area district for initial approval before the spending plan goes to a June 11 referendum.
The proposed budget is up about 7 percent from last year, largely due to a $1.4 million increase in special education funding. District officials also proposed the budget under the assumption that the entire repayment would have to be made during the next school year.
The three-year repayment agreement reached with the state means that the local tax impact will be slightly less than originally proposed, according to figures provided by the district.
“I, personally, believe this shows that both the MDOE and the RSU are accepting responsibility for missed opportunities to catch the error and are using everything in our respective toolboxes to mitigate the impact to taxpayers of repaying an amount we should never have received in the first place,” RSU 13 Business Manager Peter Orne said in an email.
The subsidy error was rooted in a Department of Education survey that the district’s superintendent completed in 2017 regarding enrollment figures for the district’s grant-funded pre-kindergarten program.
As a result of the survey, which RSU 13 Superintendent John 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.
District officials were notified in November of the error and were told that the repayment could not be waived.
But by stretching the repayment out over three years, the tax impact on Rockland and Thomaston ― the district’s largest tax contributors ― will decrease by $416,000 and $212,000, respectively, according to Orne.
If the proposed budget passes, Rockland will see its tax contribution increase by about $1.2 million, Thomaston’s contribution will increase by $550,000, Cushing’s contribution will increase by about $430,000, South Thomaston’s contribution will increase by about $436,000 and Owls Head’s contribution will increase by about $549,000.
To lessen the impact on taxpayers, the board has eliminated the equivalent of about 20 positions throughout the district. While some of those positions are being eliminated through retirements, resignations or the elimination of vacant positions, some employees will likely be laid off.