2016-03-25 / Community

Renovation bond drives up RSU 21 budget

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Spending in RSU 21 is pegged to increase $3.34 million, or 8.3 percent, to $44.53 million, according to a plan approved by the school board Monday night in an 8-2 vote.

However, while there were lots of questions from board members about particulars during a two-hour budget presentation, there were few comments directed at the bottom line. Even so, there were indications that some amendments may be offered during the final reading of the budget on May 2, before it is sent to voters.

“I appreciate all the hard work the budget committee has done, but I would recommend that the board consider eliminating elementary foreign language from this budget before we accept it,” said Mike Mosher, a school board member from Kennebunk.

“The results aren’t there and it’s an expensive program,” Mosher said. “We ask taxpayers to support us a lot and when we have programming that is not producing, we should eliminate those programs.”

However, school board Chairman Maureen King said a report on the foreign language program, including recommendations for change, would be delivered at the board’s April 4 meeting. With that in mind, she recommended holding any amendments until the final reading of the budget in May.

“I think we need to let them present their full report on what this program is and what changes may be needed,” King said.

Mosher agreed to hold his amendment, but still voted against the first reading of the budget, as did Lionel Menard, of Kennebunk.

Menard did not voice his specific objection to the budget, other than to say, “This is a huge number” when referencing a $647,934 (9.3 percent) increase in special education costs.

Superintendent Katie Hawes said that increase is based on a need to hire five new Level II education technicians, based on an expected spike in the number of incoming kindergarteners who require special services. There also is a bump in the number of special ed students who need to be sent out of district for services RSU 21 cannot provide.

That need is expected to increase next year from four students costing the district $58,750 each, to seven students needing an average of $80,357 – a total increase of $327,500.

But the largest single budget driver is the first payment on a $56.5 million building renovation bond approved by voters last June. Without that $2 million payment, finance committee chairman Matthew Fadiman stressed repeatedly, the overall budget increase would only be $1.3 million, or 3.24 percent.

That, he said, is fairly close to a so-called “roll forward” budget in which the district adds no new programs and only pays for the increasing costs and contracted pay raises to do what it is doing currently.

If approved as presented to the school board, and validated by voters in June, the new RSU 21 budget will mean a 3.81 increase in Arundel tax bills, up $57 to $1,552 per $100,000 of assessed property value.

Meanwhile, Kennebunk tax bills would rise 3.46 percent, adding $53 to create a bill of $1,583 per $100,000 of value. In Kennebunkport, property taxes would go up 7.53 percent, adding $58 for a new bill of $828 per $100,000 of value.

All numbers are for the school portion of tax bills only, not counting the county tax assessment or municipal spending.

Still, while the percentage increase varies by town, the tight packing of the actual dollar increase is, Fadiman said, a good sign.

“The cost formula is working because the objective of it was, as best as we can, to equalize the tax impact across the towns,” he said.

Fadiman also observed that, but for building bond payment, tax assessments would actually be down in Arundel and Kennebunk, at -0.1 percent and -0.6 percent, respectively, while rising just 0.3 percent in Kennebunkport.

That’s because the $1.3 million in new operating costs is covered by $2.17 million taken from reserve accounts to help mitigate the tax impact of the budget. That soicalled “carry forward” funding includes $600,000 in additional state subsidies RSU 21 got last year, but could not spend because the money came in after voters approved the budget, as well as $321,031 in overpayments made by Kennebunk and Kennebunkport to the Maine Public Employees Retirement fund. Because those overpayments were made before the creation of RSU 21, only taxpayers of the Kennebunks will see that money applied to their assessments.

The carry-over dollars made less of an impact on the local share of the budget than might be expected, in part because the district’s state subsidy is expected to fall more than $516,000 to $4.6 million.

Fadiman did acknowledge that despite $1.3 million in new spending – or $3.3 million counting the building bond payment – student counts in RSU 21 continue to fall. Over the past six years, RSU 21 has lost 252 students, to a total enrollment measured last October at 2,532 students. Of those, 2,258 are educated in district, with most of the difference attributable to Arundel students who go to Thornton Academy and Thornton Academy Middle School in Saco.

“Declining enrollment is never a good thing, but we are declining at a much slower rate than the rest of the state,” Fadiman said. “Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel schools are some of the most desirable schools in the state.”

Of the remaining cost drivers, the district plans to increase the nursing role at Sea Road Elementary and Kennebunkport Consolidated School from part-time to fullitime positions.

“Our experience is that kids do not choose when to get sick,” Fadiman said.

“We are seeing more and more acute illnesses – more allergies, more diabetes, more seizures – and kids need help managing that at those ages,” Hawes said. “And, frankly, we have a lot of concussions happening outside of school that kids are coming in with.”

The district also plans to hire two new custodians to “normalize” how much space each is responsible for across the district, to about 25,000 square feet, each.

Meanwhile, plans are to spend $90,000 on lease/purchase deals for five new school buses next year.

“We’re in a catch-up plan,” Fadiman said. “With 30 buses, just to keep our heads above water we need to purchase three new buses per year. We didn’t keep our heads above water and so we got behind on maintenance and other things.”

And RSU 21 Business Manager Bruce Rudolph said about $634,000 of the $1.3 million spending increase will go toward contracted salary increases.

“I won’t say we have no control over those. I will say those are contracted and we do not have a choice to not pay that,” Fadiman said.

While pay and benefits for school staffers is up, the non-labor line of spending at each of the district’s six schools is expected to drop next year. Rudolph attributed those decreases, especially the 10 percent drop at Kennebunk High School, to savings in utility costs following building renovations. Overall, energy costs will be down $133,000, Rudolph said.

During his presentation, Fadiman acknowledged much of the work was needed because the district has not spent enough on building maintenance over the years. The state department of education recommends school districts reinvest 2 percent of total building replacement costs on annual maintenance. In RSU 21, that would amount to $2 million per year, and yet the district typically spends just one-tenth of that on maintenance.

“We have not done that ever, I don’t think. I’m not sure there’s a school district in the state that sets side 2 percent,” Fadiman said.

RSU 21’s capital reserve fund currently stands at $349,000, following a $450,000 transfer into the new construction fund.

If the proposed budget is adopted as it currently stands, the 11 categories voters will see at the district budget meeting May 17 will be as follows:

 Regular instruction – $16.84 million (up 1.57 percent)

 Special education – $7.52 million (up 9.52 percent)

 Career and technical instruction – $53,938 (up 15.04 percent)

 Other instruction – $1.07 million (up 3.82 percent)

 Student and staff supplementary spending – $3.3 million (up 6.43 percent)

 System administration – $859,831 (up 2.08 percent)

 School administration – $1.81 million (up 3.49 percent)

 Transportation – $2.9 million (up 4.07 percent)

 Facilities – $4.05 million (down 0.64 percent)

 Debt service – $4.85 million (up 67.91 percent)

 All other expenses – $180,321 (up 61.09 percent)

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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