OXFORD HILLS — SAD 17 Superintendent Rick Colpitts has unveiled the proposed fiscal 2018 school budget of $39,688,294 – a 1.73 percent hike.
The budget reflects a 1.47 reduction in state subsidy and a 4.19 percent increase in local assessments.
Based on Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget, the SAD 17 budget is a $674,415 increase. The proposed assessments to local towns range from a 9.80 percent or $81,815 increase for West Paris to a 5.38 percent or $194,182 decrease for Harrison, which pays the actual per pupil cost because of its high property valuation.
Oxford is seeing an increase of $269,865 or 7.32 percent, Norway $258,498 or 6.97 percent increase, and Paris $194,519 or 6.59 percent increase.
Four public budget hearings were held for residents and officials in all eight district towns last week, town managers met with the superintendent and school officials Tuesday night, May 2, and the school board heard the preliminary budget at its meeting Monday, May 1.
The reaction so far has been mixed.
“For municipalities who say the school is strangling us, I get it because it is. That’s the way the local share has shifted,” Colpitts said.
The increased costs in the proposed budget are: $789,000 or 15 percent in special education; $475,000 or 8.065 percent in health insurance; $42,000 in reading curriculum; $32,000 in assessments; $30,000 in the gifted and talented account for professional development.
Additionally the budget calls for a $55,000 increase to bring back a full-time principal at Hebron Station and Agnes Gray Elementary School in West Paris and $500,000 or 2.5 percent in negotiated pay increases.
Increases requested, but not included in the proposed budget include: full-time principals at the Harrison, Waterford and Otisfield elementary schools; one additional bus purchase (the budget does include the purchase of three to keep the fleet under 10 years of age); many facilities improvements and equipment; increased social services; increased nursing services and more teachers to reduce class sizes.
Also not included in the proposed budget are: additional coaches and interventionists, additional special education staffing and increased funding for out-of-district placements. That need is being addressed by a grant to form a special purpose school.
Colpitts said there are certain budget items that the school has no control over such as town enrollments, town valuations, cost sharing, mandates and special educational services required by a student’s individual education plan (IEP).
Ninety percent or $35,749,432 of the school budget is “fixed” and most of those costs are salaries, which continue to grow, he said.
Only $3,938,862 or 9.9. percent of the budget is flexible and most of that is supplies, maintenance, extra and co-curricular.
“The budget is intensive with salaries and salaries continue to go up,”Colpitts said.
A total of 16.9 percent of the proposed budget is for special education, said Colpitts. While special education averages statewide 17 to 18 percent of school budgets, the state only contributes up to 15 percent of that cost.
Special education services are required by a student’s IEP. The IEPs are made by a group including the student’s parents, special education teacher, regular education teacher and the building principal. The IEP is based on the needs of the child and can be costly.
The law requires that students receive the necessary accommodations despite the costs – even when the child has to be placed out of district to receive the appropriate services.
Predicting the special education needs year to year, as students move in and out of the district, becomes problematic in developing a budget.
In 2009, for example, SAD 17 was required to send three students with low functioning autism out-of-district for appropriate services. Today that number is 19 students, Colpitts said. It costs between $48,000 and $50,000 per student to place a student out of district. That is a total cost of $2,450,000.
While the special education budget is volatile, steps are now being taken to reduce that cost by bringing some of those services back into the district, Colpitts said.
Several weeks ago SAD 17 was notified that it and two other school districts were awarded a state grant to provide technical and experiential learning opportunities for special education students who would otherwise receive services outside their districts. SAD 17 in Paris, including Oxford Hills Technical School, SAD 44 in Bethel and SAD 72 in Fryeburg are expected to save more than $2 million over five years under the regionalized approach.
The program, which will be housed in at the Oxford Annex, next to the elementary school, will accommodate between 15 and 30 students from SAD 17, SAD 44 and SAD 72 in grades 6 to 12 who have autism and/or emotional disabilities and other challenging behaviors.
SAD 17 will act as the lead district in the Western Maine Regional Program for Children with Exceptionalities. The program is part of a statewide initiative called EMBRACE, or Enabling Maine Students to Benefit From Regional And Coordinated Approaches to Education.
While the move is helping reduce special education costs, the escalating costs, which are unknown from year to year as needy students move into the district, continue to impact regular education budget.
“Kids who are regular education end up losing out. We’re under funding both,” said Colpitts of the regular and special education budgets.
Per pupil cost
In fiscal ’16 SAD 17 ranked 213 out of 245 school systems in cost per student. A total of 87 school systems spent more per student than SAD 17, said Colpitts and of the 18 school districts with more than 2,500 students, SAD 17 ranks 17th in spending per student. If the Oxford Hills Technical School’s budget ($3.8 million in fiscal ’16) was removed from the overall SAD 17 budget, SAD 17 would be ranked lowest in spending, Colpitts said.
If SAD 17 spent the statewide average amount per student, its budget would have been $4,725,000 higher this year.
Part of the state allocation is based on student enrollment. Colpitts said district-wide, SAD 17 has seen an overall student decrease of only 57 children or 1.7 percent in the last 10 years.
Although towns like Harrison, which has lost nearly 100 students or 26.5 percent of its students population or Waterford, which has lost 70 students or 29.4 percent of its students over the last 10 years, other towns have seen a significant increase in student population.
Norway has seen almost 40 more students or a 5.8 percent increase, Paris 23 or 3.2 percent increase, and Oxford 28 or 4.5 percent increase over the 10-year period.
“Where these kids live has radically shifted,” he said.
While some may argue that the smaller community schools could be shut down to save money and the state does recommend one full-time principal per 300 students in elementary schools, Colpitts said the parents wanted and the district is committed to keeping individual community schools even though some schools have as about 100 or less students in them. Waterford Elementary School currently has the lowest number of students, 79 as of the April 1 enrollment figures.
That commitment has forced budget reductions that have eliminated full-time principals at five of the elementary schools, but as time has gone by Colpitts said that decision has had ramifications, including lower tests scores.
“We’ve seen our scores go down when we cut the administration in half,” he said.
To counteract that effect, this year the budget is supporting a full-time principal at both Hebron and West Paris Agnes Gray School at an increased cost of $55,000. That money came from the elimination of two ed tech positions, Colpitts said.
Although it was hoped a full-time principal could be put back at Waterford and Harrison elementary schools, the budget could not support the move this year.
On Monday, May 15, the superintendent will present the final budget to the Board of Directors for adoption at the board meeting, beginning at 7 p.m. in the administration building.
On Thursday, June 8, the district budget hearing will be held, beginning at 7 p.m. in the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School Forum. At that time, voters will be asked to act on a number of line items that in total will be the proposed budget.
Additionally, voters will be asked in a separate written ballot to authorize the board to overspend the EPS budget by more than $1 million.
If that article fails, drastic cuts in that amount will have to be made. Colpitts said sports, perhaps increased class size and other things will be on the chopping block.
They will also be asked in a separate warrant article to approve spending any unanticipated state funds that may come back after the state budget is settled to use in programming, facilities, reducing the taxpayers burden and other measures.
Assuming the town meeting votes pass, voters in all eight towns will then be required to validate the budget in a referendum question at their individual town polls on Tuesday, June 13. That vote will be a simple “yes” or “no” answer.
If voters turn down the budget, the process begins again until a budget is finally enacted.
Several years ago it took neighboring Mechanic Falls voters three tries to approve its school budget.