Though two more chances for public input remain, the Sheepscot Valley Regional School Unit 12 board of directors have approved a $26.5 million budget for the 2013-2014 school year.
A $26,411,204 budget was proposed by the Finance Committee at the board meeting on May 9, but after that failed in a 9-10 vote, the board approved the budget with an additional $100,000 added to help prevent cuts to art, music, foreign language, and sports programs – all of which face some form of cuts in the approved budget.
The board remained split, but the $26,411,204 budget passed with a 12 to 7 vote.
The board-approved budget represents a $745,559 or 2.89 percent increase overall, but a $1,100,048 or 7.65 percent increase to the RSU’s eight towns – Wiscasset, Whitefield, Westport Island, Windsor, Somerville, Palermo, Chelsea, and Alna.
The increase of towns’ share of the budget is happening in many districts as the state’s share of Essential Programs and Services has dropped, according to Finance Committee Chair Jerry Nault.
RSU officials have said the budget would need to increase $2 million over the current budget to maintain the district as it is now, due to increase in staff contracts, fuel oil costs, expiration of grants which fund current programs, and the shift of teacher retirement costs to the district.
The budget process has included discussion of potential cuts to staff, capital improvements, and programs such as art, music, and middle school and junior varsity sports. District officials have said many of the cuts were proposed to make program offerings equitable across the district.
The budget approved by the board only represents a “spending cap” and no final decisions have been made on how exactly the budget will be divvied up, Nault said.
Residents of the RSU’s eight towns will have the opportunity to vote budget cost centers up or down at the district budget meeting scheduled for Saturday, June 8, and will vote on the final budget by referendum on Friday, June 28.
Board Chair Hilary Holm said the Finance Committee’s original $26.4 million proposal was an attempt to include feedback given about the proposed cuts during the budget development process. Community members and RSU 12 staff expressed concerns at previous board meetings about how and what was being cut from the proposed budget.
As a follow up to feedback, board members met with representatives from the teachers’ union last week and asked if the teachers would be willing to give a day of work for no pay, which would save about $70,000, Holm said. The representatives said no, but they did not have enough time to put forth an alternate way they could contribute, she said.
In contract negotiations about a year ago, the teachers did agree to a “spousal clause” where if any teacher’s spouse has another form of health insurance they could be on, they would not be eligible for health insurance through the RSU, Holm said. This results in about a $75,000 savings, she said.
One cut proposed in earlier sessions, 3.9 technology integrator positions, were taken mostly off the chopping block in the approved budget.
There were good arguments not to change how technology is handled in the district, said incoming Superintendent Howard Tuttle. One technology integrator position – currently held by Thomas Steele-Maley at Wiscasset High School, who is leaving at the end of the year – will still be cut, and integrators at Wiscasset Middle School and Wiscasset Primary School will help fill the gap, Tuttle said.
Middle school and junior varsity sports were also saved from being cut, as the district will look for around $89,000 in savings without eliminating any teams except those with very low or no participation, Tuttle said.
There may be some savings by eliminating the return bus trip from away games – which would save on bus driver salaries during the time they wait – but that would require some research, Tuttle said.
The district may also change to a pay-to-play method of funding sports, Tuttle said. How big a fee would be required, and whether the district would offer scholarships, is still unknown, he said.
Richard DeVries, a board member from Westport Island, said he had visited some businesses to look into interest in sponsoring school sports and had a positive response, which may make scholarships possible.
Among cuts which were included in the approved budget, general music for grades 6-8 would be eliminated across the district (chorus and band would remain) with the reduction of 0.9 of a music teacher. Whitefield Elementary School would go from art twice a week to once a week with a 0.4 art teacher reduction, and the cut of 1.5 foreign language teachers would eliminate any K-8 foreign language programs.
In the discussion about music, arts, and foreign language cuts, a number of board members indicated the $100,000 added into the approved budget should go, in some fashion, to alleviating the cuts. Several people said such programs – in addition to sports – are what challenge students and keep them engaged and interested in school.
The district will not increase its tax base by cutting programs like art and music which draw people to a given school, said Andrea Loni, a parent from Whitefield.
“You have to improve our schools, not decimate them,” Loni said.
Some communities may not need equity in all of those areas because different communities have different priorities, said Todd Souza, Wiscasset High School’s varsity baseball coach.
“Equity is not always equity when you’re looking at the bottom [line] and not what’s important to each community,” Souza said.
Genevieve Keller, the art teacher at Windsor Elementary School, said it has been scientifically proven how important art and music is to child development.
“This RSU is pulling us down to the lowest common denominator,” Keller said of the attempts at equity.
Diana McKenzie, a board member from Chelsea, said she supports art and music, but if some schools are getting art twice a week, all schools should have it.
“I am for supporting that, but it needs to be equal across the district,” she said.
If the community feels strongly about that, it should be made a priority for the next budget cycle, Holm said.
The dilemma is not about having programs, but whether or not people in the district can or are willing to pay for them, said Joan Morin, a board member from Whitefield.
Sandra Crehore, a board member from Westport Island, raised concerns about people who live on fixed incomes being able to handle an increase in property taxes. She said her taxes last year were 10 percent of her take-home income.
“I think we have to be realistic,” Crehore said. “How high can we go and have people pay their taxes?”
One route open to all towns, if they want to restore cut programs, is to raise and expend funds which benefit that town, according to Nault.
“You all have the opportunity to take individual initiatives in your towns,” he said.
The Sheepscot Valley RSU 12 board of directors will next meet on Thursday, May 23 at 6:30 p.m., location to be determined.