A group of local residents have come together to help find the best possible education at the lowest possible cost for students in Camden and Rockport schools.

The group — Citizens for Value In Education — formed about a year ago when Rockport resident Alex Armentrout gave a presentation to the town’s Select Board, followed by several letters to the editor, which appeared in the local news.

Armentrout asked the town to take the lead in urging the schools to create budgets that would result in no increase in the tax burden to the town.

“The schools are taking too big of a portion of taxpayer dollars,” Armentrout said Jan. 7, adding that there is not enough money left over to do anything in town.

The schools take 70 percent of the total budget for Rockport, and it is similar for other towns, he said. Armentrout suggested that should be scaled back to about 60 percent, which would free up $774,000 in Rockport that could be used for other purposes.

The total Maine School Administrative District 28 budget for the current year is $12,523,119, which is up 2.36 percent from the 2008-2009 school year. It corresponds to a 5.75 percent or $634,634 increase to taxpayers.

The Camden Hills Regional High School budget is $11,566,717. That figure represents a 0.83 percent or $96,602 decrease from the previous year.

Four of the five towns in the Five Town Community School District, which oversees Camden Hills, saw a decrease in expenses to cover high school costs. Rockport was the only town that saw an increase, due to a $20 million rise in valuation.

Armentrout began working with the Rockport Select Board in the summer, when it asked SAD 28 and the Five Town CSD for a 10-year breakdown of school expenditures.

“The Select Board has been enormously supportive of everything that has been done,” he said.

As word spread of the work Armentrout was doing, people began getting involved and the Citizens for Value In Education group was formed. Armentrout said he has a long list of people he e-mails information to, and the group also holds monthly meetings to brainstorm ways to trim costs.

After Rockport officials asked for the data, the school administration began comparing data with other schools.

“It [the data] was very revealing to the town and to the school boards,” Armentrout said.

The group is not suggesting any cuts in extracurricular activities or teacher compensation, but is looking at areas such as debt service, operations and maintenance, special education, vocational education, and administrative costs.

“To me education is extremely important,” Armentrout said. “We’ve got to have the offerings and we’ve got to be able to attract good teachers.”

The biggest thing that needs to be looked at, Armentrout said, is debt service.

The group has suggested looking at ways to restructure the bonds and loans for Camden Hills and Camden-Rockport Elementary School.

Armentrout suggested lengthening the terms of the loans, which would lower the costs to taxpayers.

“We will incur more interest in the long term, but interest rates are as low as they ever are going to be,” he said.

Another area that needs to be looked at is administrative costs, he said. In 10 years, administrative costs for SAD 28 have increased 135 percent, compared with only 13 percent at the high school for the same time frame.

“This is a cooperative effort — not an antagonistic one,” Armentrout said of working with school officials.

Superintendent Pat Hopkins said in an e-mail that it is important for the district to hear from individuals and groups.

“We always strongly encourage constituent taxpayers to attend finance committee and school board meetings to provide input on budgets, costs and programs,” she said.

Armentrout has plans to make presentations to select boards in the other four towns — Camden, Hope, Appleton and Lincolnville — this month.

The next meeting of the Citizens for Value In Education will be Thursday, Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. at the Rockport Opera House.

Anyone interested in being added to the mailing list should e-mail Armentrout at paulalex@roadrunner.com.

The Herald Gazette Reporter Kim Lincoln can be reached at 236-8511 or by e-mail at klincoln@villagesoup.com.