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Residents back Rockland-area school budget

By Stephen Betts | May 23, 2019
Photo by: Stephen Betts Regional School Unit 13 Board Chair Loren Andrews, standing, speaks at the start of the May 23 budget hearing.

Rockland — Residents of the Rockland-area school district overwhelmingly approved Thursday night, May 23, a $31.2 million budget that will lay off up to 13 people and hike property taxes.

But the citizens bemoaned the pain of the anticipated tax hike and took aim at the state's funding formula, as well as the cost to provide health insurance for employees.

About 77 people turned out for the Regional School Unit 13 budget meeting at Oceanside High School's auditorium in Rockland.

The budget now goes for a yes or no vote on the June 11 ballot in the five towns. Absentee ballots became available Friday at the municipal offices beginning.

Mike Lane of Rockland said the tax bill on his home has skyrocketed from $2,400 when he bought his house in 2003 to $6.700 last year. Lane said he has looked at selling the home, but was told that its value has not appreciated much because of the high taxes and the school system.

He said something had to be done because homeowners could not afford the rising taxes.

Stephen Carroll of Rockland said the district should make a bold step to address the inadequacy of state aid. "It's not going to be nickeling and diming that will save us money," Carroll said.

He said the district should write out an invoice for $15 million (the $3 million a year for the past five years that the district claims a fair formula would have provided) and deliver it directly to the governor and ask for cash.

Board member Carol Bachofner said that whoever told Lane that the schools played a role in not being able to get as much for homes in Rockland was wrong.

RSU 13 Superintendent John McDonald cited marked improvement in graduation rates since he came to the district in 2015, a sharp drop in the dropout rates, and better performance by freshmen as a result of the creation of a freshman academy.

Several citizens also asked why the district was paying 100 percent of the health insurance premiums for staff.

Board member Doug Curtis said the district pays $465,000 a month for health insurance for staff, and that will rise more than $500,000 next year. He agreed that it was not sustainable and something must be done.

Board Chair Loren Andrews said RSU 13 must be competitive with other districts. He said rising health insurance costs is a state and national issue.

Jane Newcomb of Owls Head, who has both worked at the district and served on the former SAD 5 Board, said all staff work hard every minute of the day. She said they are worth getting their health insurance paid for by the district.

Newcomb said she would be willing to go to Augusta and deliver the bill to the state, as suggested by Carroll.

The budget set by the residents at the May 23 meeting was $31,176,500, which represents a 7.3 percent ($2.1 million) spending increase. The uptick is because of a $1.4 million rise in special education costs and significantly higher health insurance costs for employees.

McDonald said he hoped that layoffs could be limited by people retiring or taking other jobs, but 13 positions were cut. Those included three pre-kindergarten teaching positions, two pre-kindergarten educational technicians, and an administrative assistant post for pre-kindergarten -- all based at South School.

The district is contracting with Penquis to operate the pre-kindergarten program at South School for next year. McDonald said it would be up to Penquis whether to retain the district employees.

Other positions being cut include a middle school science teaching post, a third-grade teaching post at Ash Point Community School in Owls Head, a half-time social studies position at Oceanside High School, an administrative assistant at Ash Point, an educational technician at the library, and a part-time educational technician position at Ash Point.

Other positions being cut -- which are either vacant or will be vacant through retirements and resignations -- include two math positions at the high school, a fourth-grade teaching position at South School, a second-grade teaching position at Thomaston Grammar School and a middle school Spanish position.

The budget does not include any money for a school resource officer.

Rockland resident Christopher Whytock, the city's fire chief, said if the district does not create a school resource officer it will regret it later. "We have to be prepared," Whytock said.

Andrews said while the position is not in the budget, the board has directed the superintendent to find money to create the post, which would allow a Rockland police officer to be in the Rockland schools.

Even with the cuts, however, a major tax hike looms.

Rockland will still see an increase of more than $1.1 million. This means a person owning a home assessed at $150,000 will pay about $230 more just from the school budget.

Ed Glaser was the only city councilor in attendance. A few selectmen from the towns of RSU 13 were also at the meeting including Gordon Page from Owls Head, Jan Gaudio of South Thomaston, and William Hahn of Thomaston.

This sharp increase in property taxes is because of the budget increase, which is largely due to a $1.4 million increase for special education services. The budget for special education has been significantly underfunded for the past few years, RSU 13 Business Manager Peter Orne has noted.

The district has also expended its surplus, leaving nothing to cushion increases.

The district projects receiving about $3.8 million in state aid for 2019-2020. That amounts to 12 percent of the overall budget.

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Comments (4)
Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | May 28, 2019 04:01

Please, some of you with good ideas run for the school board; Doug Curtis did and is making a difference.

Posted by: Harry Fitzgerald | May 27, 2019 22:33

I was also there and left after they were still on Article 1 after 90 minutes. I have no problem paying for the health insurance for the employee, but paying 75% of the family policy is not sustainable. Not a good budget, too many teachers cut, what about cuts in administration? Go back to one principal covering 2 schools, LL and Cushing shared a principal before, why not eliminate recently created principal position  in Cushing and go back to shared position. Better than cutting teachers!

Posted by Nancy Fitzgerald

Posted by: Ian Emmott | May 24, 2019 10:38

If we had money to spare I would have motioned for Mr. McDonald's salary increase (although that would be out of order im sure)...that man has been through hell. Thanks to the Board and Mr. Orne as well for doing what they can although I would have preferred a different outcome.

Posted by: Stephen K Carroll | May 24, 2019 09:21

Headlines are an important attention grabber , but do not always tell the real story.  I have attended many school budget meetings over the years and once you arrive there is an overwhelming feeling you have just entered a time warp.  The meetings are in the same place, the same majority of teachers and school personnel are sitting there and the moderator is the same.  So right away a betting man could easily predict the outcome.  Furthermore the question was asked by the man sitting behind me, "what happens if we don't pass this budget tonight, what happens then ?".  The moderator quickly replies,  "we can not leave here tonight unless a budget, in some amount, is passed"  Well that's refreshing,  you're doomed from the start. Many including myself voiced objection to the proposed budget but realized the process was flawed in that even if voters did NOT approve at the polls a meeting would then be called to approve the budget that just failed.  Once that realization took hold, several people including myself left. Another realization of the evening was to learn that unless the state funding formula is changed, school budgets will continue to grow. Thank you to the area selectman and to councilor Ed Glazier for having the courtesy to attend.

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