Some of the big questions being asked as school districts prepare budgets in this recession were raised March 10 when Region 8, which oversees the Mid-Coast School of Technology, presented its budget at Camden Hills Regional High School during the first of two informational sessions.

Questions raised included: did Region 8 look line by line at the budget to keep expenses down? Did Region 8 consider cutting instructor positions? Are school districts getting the best value if there are any overlapping programs? Should Region 8 match the cuts that other school districts have proposed? How many students are in each class? And what is the right number to balance quality education with a responsible budget? How does Region 8 determine the assessments to sending schools?

On hand to answer some of those questions were school Director Beth Fisher, Business Manager Sherry Moody and Region 8 board Chairman Edmund Hartt of Lincolnville. Hartt also sits on the Five Town Community School District board, which oversees Camden Hills Regional High School. About two dozen people attended the meeting.

The proposed Region 8 expenditures for 2010-2011 total $2.8 million and the assessment to the school districts that send students to the Mid-Coast School of Technology is $2.7 million.

This assessment is borne largely by three districts: Regional School Unit 13, the Five Town CSD and Maine School Administrative District 40. School administrative districts 7, 8 and Islesboro also contribute. The assessment for the day program for the three main districts is as follows:

• RSU 13 will pay $919,040 for the day program, which is 33.8 percent of the total assessment. This is down $35,265, or 3.6 percent, from the 2009-2010 budget.

• The Five Town CSD will pay $891,400 for the day program, which is 32.8 percent of the total assessment. This is down $3,612, or 0.4 percent, from the 2009-2010 budget.

• SAD 40 will pay $729,704 for the day program, which is 26.9 percent of the total assessment. This is down $40,228, or 5.1 percent, from the 2009-2010 budget.

Fisher said the overall assessment for 2010-2011 to the sending schools is down 3.14 percent from the current year. Fisher said the Region 8 Finance Committee and school administrators tried to pare down the budget line by line. The expenditures for 2010-2011 are down $20,960 from the previous year.

“I don’t think you’re going to find any fat in this budget,” Fisher said.

On the question of cutting teacher positions, Fisher said it would be tantamount to eliminating a program. At that point, the question is which program to cut, she said.

“When I think of cutting a position I think of axing a program,” Fisher said.

Camden Hills Principal Nick Ithomitis questioned the fairness of the assessment when his school does not send all the students it has slots for. Ithomitis said 40 to 50 percent of juniors and seniors at Medomak Valley High School use the Mid-Coast School of Technology, while the figure is only 20 percent for Camden Hills.

A chart presented at the meeting shows Camden Hills student counts at the Mid-Coast School of Technology. In the last decade, the number of Camden Hills students at the Mid-Coast School of Technology peaked at 128 in 2006-2007. The last three years, the average has been 79 Camden Hills students at the Mid-Coast School of Technology.

Fisher said the assessment is based on the enrollment of juniors and seniors at the sending schools.

Fisher described the staff of the Mid-Coast School of Technology. There are two administrators, one business manager, one secretary, one information technology technician, three in the maintenance department, one curriculum director, 25 vocational instructors and one educational technician.

Fisher said vocational programs are expensive because of equipment costs, textbooks, supplies and ongoing teacher training. Supplies include automobile parts, software and welding rods. The Mid-Coast School of Technology offers 21 different programs. The budgets for the programs vary. A few examples are auto collision tech ($90,561), welding/metal fabrication ($81,702) and marine technology ($79,776).

The hospitality/culinary arts program includes baking and cooking. It is one of the most popular — and expensive — programs, with a budget of $157,539.

“You can’t teach culinary arts without food,” Fisher said.

Fisher also described the importance of career and technical training. She said this type of instruction reduces the dropout rate, and applied learning is the style proven to have the best retention rate. Fisher said the programs must prepare students for employment in current and emerging occupations. She added that students at the Mid-Coast School of Technology can get certification in firefighting, nursing and welding.

The Region 8 board adopted the budget at its Feb. 24 meeting. This was frustrating to some attendees who commented at the informational session because for those who are crafting school district budgets, the Region 8 expense is one of the only lines they can’t try to cut. Voters will see the Region 8 budget as part of the overall proposed school district budgets.

Another informational session on the Region 8 budget will be held Wednesday, March 24 at 6 p.m. at the Mid-Coast School of Technology, prior to a regular board meeting.