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

ROCKLAND, Maine — The chair of the Regional School Unit 13 school board began Thursday’s district-wide presentation of the proposed $31,176,500 budget by offering an apology.

Because of a steep hike in the district’s special education funding needs, the proposed 2019-2020 budget represents a 7.6 percent increase from the current budget. With no reserves funds to tap, district officials face the prospect of having to lay off about 13 employees and ask for local taxpayers to chip in more money.

“We are truly sorry,” RSU 13 School Board Chair Loren Andrews said. “We are sorry that any member of our wonderful staff had to lose their job because of this budget. We are truly sorry that any member of the public is worrying if they can pay their bills or their property tax bill.”

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A group of about 80 residents from the five towns that make up the school district gave the first round of approval to the $31.2 million budget at the meeting Thursday night. The budget will now go to a yes-or-no vote in a June 11 ballot referendum.

RSU 13 encompasses the communities of Rockland, Thomaston, South Thomaston, Cushing and Owls Head. The district serves about 1,600 students.

While attendees of Thursday’s meeting eventually backed the budget, many expressed frustration that their property taxes would be going up to fund the budget increase. District officials and residents also focused their frustration on the state’s funding model for education amid concerns that the state does not pay its full share.

“The tax burden is already out of control,” one attendee said. “We have to find an alternative route, whether that be one collective voice to go to Augusta to get some relief for funding. But to bear this burden again on the taxpayer […] something has to be done.”

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.

A recent three-year repayment agreement between the district and the Maine Department of Education for the repayment of $628,000 that RSU 13 erroneously received in its subsidy last year brought some budget relief.

But the equivalent of 20 positions were cut throughout the district. A number of cuts were made through attrition, but district officials say about 13 people have been notified that their positions were terminated.