During its discussions of the proposed 2012-13 budget Tuesday night, April  24, the RSU 20 Board of Directors sent district administrators back to the drawing board in the interest of presenting a zero-increase budget to the voters.

That portion of the meeting, which took place at Searsport District High School, began with a presentation from Finance Committee Chairman Gerry Reid.

The current proposed 2012-13 budget package carries a total $34.2 million price tag, Reid said, which represents a 4.5 percent increase over the 2011-12 budget of $32.8 million.

The demographic reality

Part of the reason for the sizable increase, Reid said, is about $2.4 million worth of revenue loss the district is experiencing this year as a result of declining state and federal funding. The district has the option of using $1 million of carryover from the current year that would bring that gap down to $1.4 million, but when that amount of lost revenue is combined with the increase in proposed 2012-13 expenditures, Reid said it equates to a local school tax increase of $2.8 million.

That would mean an average increase of 14.8 percent across the nine towns in the district, with individual local assessments ranging from 8.7 percent for the town of Morrill to as high as 24.33 percent for the town of Searsport.

“That took my breath away,” said Reid of his reaction to seeing those figures for the first time. “And that’s after applying the $1 million carryover.”

And, Reid cautioned, the dilemma would not end this year. Inflation alone will mean an increase of about $850,000 for 2013-14, Reid said, and the district must also plan for an estimated $1 million loss should the town of Frankfort depart from the district as planned. Additional reductions in state and federal aid are not known, Reid added, and the district must also determine what to do about maintaining and/or renovating old buildings.

“There will be a substantial tax implication for not one, but two years in a row,” Reid said.

Another factor is the combination of declining enrollments and continued under-utilization of three of the district’s 13 buildings — which Reid specified as Stockton Springs Elementary School, Searsport Elementary School and Searsport District High School. Those buildings are about “half empty” now, he said, but with anticipated declining enrollment and the loss of Frankfort students, those buildings could be at 30 percent capacity within five years.

Then there are the outside factors of high unemployment and, by extension, tax delinquencies.

Reid said while the district has presented several different proposals aimed at reorganizing the district and getting the best use out of the newest buildings, those proposals were not well received by the public.

But something needs to be done to address what’s coming down the road, Reid said.

“We can’t escape our demographic reality; it is what it is,” he said.

That said, Reid stated he could not bring himself to recommend approval of a budget that drops a double-digit average cost increase on nine towns when the package lacks educational quality improvement investments.

“I, for one, will never recommend that,” he said. “… I’d like to defer asking people to pay for a lot more until there are more educational opportunities.”

‘No easy places to go’

Immediately following the presentation, Reid made a motion to ask Superintendent Bruce Mailloux and the administrative team to “reduce costs that are not essential to current program quality.”

The specifics of Reid’s motion included “prudent class size increases, reduction of administration, closing of office buildings, reassignment of students to different buildings and reduction of building operation costs.”

Also as part of the motion, Reid specified that administrators avoid cuts to music, art and physical education, library or other teacher support staff and books, educational supplies and field trips.

“I urge the board to make the difficult choices this year,” he said.

Reid’s motion also included a directive that the administrators bring a flat-increase budget back to the board for review, a package that would still result in passing the $1.4 million revenue loss on to taxpayers.

In conclusion, Reid called attention to comments made earlier in the meeting by resident Amy Fradel, who suggested the district eliminate the entire food service program, which would save the district upwards of $85,000. Fradel stated the nutrition program “undermines” the efforts of some parents to give their children healthy lunches because there are less healthy options available to children once they get to school. She also stated the program allows other parents to shift their own responsibilities to feed their children onto the school district.

Reid said he noticed a lot of people chuckling at Fradel’s suggestion, but he did not see the humor in the idea.

“I didn’t chuckle, I wrote it down and smiled,” he said. “… We’ve got to stop asking the school district to do as much as we’re asking it to do.”

Reid’s motion was seconded, but prior to the vote Director Orya Shomron suggested an amendment to specify no schools would be closed.

“That’s not going to happen, Orya,” said Mailloux.

Reid did not immediately accept Shomron’s amendment and instead encouraged his fellow directors to continue discussing the matter.

Director Stephen Hopkins said he was against the amendment.

“We’ve got to put all the options on the table,” he said.

Reid later said while he respects Shomron’s intent, he does not feel there should be additional qualifiers placed around options already set forth in his motion.

“It’s not going to be painless,” Reid told the audience of the proposed cost reduction effort. “There are no easy places to go.”

Director Valerie Mank suggested administrators revisit some of the items that have already seen some parings, such as in the technology budget.

“There’s a little fat,” she said.

Director Alexa Schweikert said the tax increase is a small price to pay for the success of students.

“I still think the taxes are worth, even with the increase, our children,” she said. “They’re our future.”

Director Chris Krause said RSU 20 is no different than other parts of the state and country, as people are struggling financially and many no longer have more money to contribute.

“It’s difficult for me to accept…We’re not an island of prosperity here,” he said.

Shomron took exception to Mailloux’s response to his idea about keeping schools open when cutting the budget, admonishing the superintendent for what Shomron said he saw as an unwillingness to explore all options.

“Why not just show us an option,” he said.

Shomron also criticized Reid’s enrollment projections that he offered as part of the budget presentation, noting numbers based on set projections aren’t “always accurate.”

“Forget the projections,” said Reid. “Just go to this year, and the implications are the same.”

After some additional discussion, directors voted 16-1 (with Director Twyler Webster opposed) to approve Reid’s motion asking administrators to return to the board with a zero-increase budget.

After the vote was taken, Webster said she wanted to see a list of new expenses included in the current proposed budget.

“I don’t need the answer tonight, but I’d like an answer,” she said.

In an effort to expedite the budget approval process, directors agreed to hold a special board meeting Tuesday, May 1, to discuss options for reducing the budget and to see what district administrators come up with for further cost reductions. That meeting will take place in the Belfast Area High School band room at 6:30 p.m.

Reporter Tanya Mitchell can be reached at 338-3333 or tmitchell@villagesoup.com.