By Susan McMillan
SOMERVILLE — Voters in the eight towns of Regional School Unit 12 will go to the polls Friday to decide the fate of a $26.5 million budget.
The referendum is later than usual this year because interim Superintendent Alan Hawkins has been ill and also because school officials hoped that the state budget would be settled by now.
That hope didn't pan out — the Legislature will vote today on whether to override Gov. Paul LePage's budget veto — so the RSU 12 budget will go to voters with a projection that the district will lose a small amount of state subsidy as part of a total decrease in revenues of about $275,000.
As a result, the 2.9 percent increase in spending from $25.8 million to $26.5 million will translate into a 7.7 percent increase in the assessment on district taxpayers.
Reductions in the budget include 3.75 central office or administrative staff, 10.1 instructional staff, $146,000 in deferred maintenance projects and the institution of a pay-to-participate fee for athletics or co-curricular activities.
"The bottom line, these are hard times, and no one wants to see their taxes go up, but if we're going to move forward and compete, we need to figure out a way to bring these services to our children," said acting Superintendent Patricia Watts, whose job as assistant superintendent and curriculum coordinator would be reduced to half-time by the budget.
Board Chairwoman Hilary Holm, who represents Whitefield, said residents offered several amendments to reduce spending at the regional budget meeting, but all of them failed.
The school board split over how much to cut from the budget, so they added a question about whether the total is too high, too low or about right. Holm said that will provide some guidance in case the budget fails at referendum.
"I think this is a budget that reflects a focus," Holm said. "We have a long-range plan now, we have several initiatives to help improve student performance, achievement and success despite the tough economic times, and we are committed to continuing appropriate support for those programs."
Watts said the budget increases a behavior specialist to full time to expand the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program, and she's also enthusiastic about the two literacy coaches RSU 12 has trained to work in all of the district's schools next year.
"This program will reach many of our children that are at risk of reading failure," Watts said. "If people believe in what we're doing, given some time I believe we can turn this around."
The 2013-14 budget is the first to apply RSU 12's new cost allocation, which voters approved in November. The calculation shifts cost from high-valuation coastal towns that have paid more per student since RSU 12 formed in 2009 to northern towns that have paid less per student.
One town, Westport Island, will see its school taxes go down by 14 cents per $1,000 in taxable value.
The tax per $1,000 in value would increase by the following amounts in other towns: 62 cents in Alna, 98 cents in Chelsea, $1.20 in Palermo, 92 cents in Somerville, 93 cents in Whitefield and 46 cents in Wiscasset.
The RSU projects a tax increase of $1.68 per $1,000 in Windsor but adds the caveat that its estimates are based on the state valuation from 2012, which does not include the Central Maine Power substation built in Windsor since then. If the valuation used for tax commitment in Windsor is higher than the 2012 state valuation, the tax increase could be smaller.
The allocation of local costs in RSU 12 has been a sore subject. Before the allocation method changed, Westport Island and Wiscasset initiated withdrawal proceedings in part because residents felt they were paying an unfair share of the RSU budget.
In anticipation of the major tax hikes resulting from the new cost allocation, Palermo voted to begin withdrawal in December, and Windsor followed suit in May.
After a four-year transition period, all towns in RSU 12 will pay the same cost per student.
Susan McMillan — 621-5645
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