RSU 14 considers 3.3% budget hike

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WINDHAM – The Regional School Unit 14 Board of Directors is set to vote Wednesday, April 30, on a proposed budget that would increase school district spending next year by $1,320,540, or about 3.33 percent.

The increase would amount to the biggest school budget hike in recent years, according to Superintendent Sandy Prince. The budget decreased during the first two years of district consolidation, but has steadily grown since, increasing by 2.75 percent in fiscal year 2012, 2.63 percent in fiscal year 2013, and 1.87 percent last year. Since 2009, the budget has increased an average of 1 percent per year, Prince said.

The increase can be attributed to a maelstrom of factors, according to Prince, including cutbacks in state education funding, rising health-care, labor and energy costs, and aging schools.

But, for Prince, this year’s budget proposal is also a line in the sand. After years of austerity – the district has cut 71 staff positions since 2008 – Prince believes it’s time for a break from large-scale reductions.

“I want to maintain a quality school system and not continue to keep reducing staff,” Prince said. “We’ve done this every year. We’ve had reductions every year. This year, we’ve tried to minimize the number of cuts.”

Nearly half of the increase, or $637,000, can be attributed to recent state laws requiring that the district fund a portion of charter school tuitions for students in the district and an increasing share of teacher retirement costs, according to Prince. The growing charter school tuition budget makes up $130,522 of the increase, while retirement funding accounts for $506,294. Increasing student enrollment in classes at Portland and Westbrook vocational schools account for $110,000 of the increase, as well, according to Prince. The state has also not met its obligation to pay 55 percent of district education costs – contributing about 46 percent instead, Prince said. The lack of state subsidy means local property taxpayers are picking up the difference.

Meanwhile, the district is engaged in contract negotiations with unions representing administrators, teachers and support staff. Those negotiations are likely to yield wage increases, Prince said. Health care insurance costs are expected to increase more than 5 percent.

Yet, despite Prince’s opposition to further staff cutbacks, the new budget proposes staff reductions. According to the proposal, Windham High School will lose a three-day-per-week teaching position. The middle school is scheduled to lose 1.2 positions. At Manchester School, a secretary and a cafeteria monitor will each lose nine hours of work per week. A van driver position will also be eliminated.

Windham and Raymond residents are invited to a public budget meeting on May 28, at 6:30 p.m., in the Windham High School auditorium in which an initial vote will be taken of those assembled. The final budget validation vote takes place Tuesday, June 10, at each town’s respective polling place: Windham High School and Jordan-Small Middle School in Raymond.

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