PARIS — Residents must take the lead and demand changes from their legislators to keep the escalating costs of public education and the decreasing assistance from the state in check.
That’s the message that some 15 town and school officials from the SAD 17 eight-district towns agreed will be necessary to fix the inequities in the school funding formula when they met Tuesday, May 2, to discuss the proposed $39.6 million school budget during a roundtable meeting hosted by Superintendent Rick Colpitts.
“The issue is in Augusta. It’s up to the state. We have to fix this,” Harrison Town Manager George “Bud” Finch told his fellow officials following a one-hour review of the proposed budget.
Finch said the issue is not Harrison, where 92 percent of tax dollars come from homeowners, versus another SAD 17 town in terms of local assessments.
“We’re not rich,” said Harrison Selectman Richard St. John, who came to the meeting with Finch and Town Clerk Melissa St. John.
It is whether Harrison and other towns can financially balance the impact of the school needs with municipal needs.
“What happens in Augusta is what will make the difference,” he said.
The meeting was held to accommodate town managers and others who were unable to attend one of four community meetings in the eight district towns last week.
Town officials from Harrison, Oxford, Norway and Waterford met with Colpitts and Business Manager Cathy Coffey and members of the Budget Committee, including School Board Chairman Ron Kugell, Budget Committee Chairman Bob Jewell, Barry Patrie, Stacia Cordwell, Diana Olsen and Stephen Cummings.
Colpitts reviewed the proposed fiscal 2018 school budget of $39,688,294 saying it is a 1.73 percent or $674,415 increase over last year’s budget. The budget reflects a 1.47 reduction in state subsidy and a 4.19 percent increase in local assessments.
The proposed assessments to local town range from a 9.8 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 percen,t and Paris $194,519 or 6.59 percent increase.
Representatives of all the towns have said they are finding it more and more difficult to absorb the escalating local assessments that this year has necessitated going over the required Essential Pupil Servies (EPS) minimum contribution by more than $1 million.
The move was made necessary by the decrease in state subsidy and the shifting of some costs from state to local and by reduction of the mil rate expectation.
Norway Selectman Tom Curtis asked why more money couldn’t be put into the gifted and talented account by reducing the high costs of the special needs department account.
Colpitts said that in his mind each student comes into the school district with their own special talents and his role is to provide a budget that addressed all needs.
While acknowledging that more money should be in the gifted and talented program and that special education costs are “out of control,” he advised Curtis that state and federal statute mandates that students receiving special needs services must be provided an appropriate and equal education.
Any attempt to avoid that would land the school district in a costly and ultimately unsuccessful court case.
Oxford Selectman Floyd Thayer said the state has to stop assessing mandates without funding to back it up.
Cordwell, who represents Oxford on the Board of Directors and its Budget Committee, suggested that a committee comprised of residents and others from each of the district towns be formed to make their concerns heard in Augusta. “Don’t back down,” she said of that effort.
Colpitts agreed saying it makes sense to look at a municipal and school team that could attempt to do something about inequities in the formula and the increase of certain educational costs.
“It’s much more effective when it comes from the community,” he said of efforts, including his own, to testify in Augusta on bills affecting education.
The Board of Directors is expected to act on the proposed preliminary budget at its Monday, May 15 meeting. The budget will then go to the voters on Thursday, June 8, during the budget town meeting beginning at 7 p.m. in the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School and then to a referendum ballot question on the Tuesday, June 13 polls where voters will give a simple yes or no vote.