SAD 17 proposed budget up 5.2 percent

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OXFORD – The proposed SAD 17 budget for fiscal 2007 translates into educational gains for students due to increased state funding that will allow the district to restore some of last year’s painful cuts in resources, Mark Eastman, SAD 17 superintendent, said Monday.

“This is a much more student-friendly budget,” said Eastman during an interview Monday afternoon.

Eastman presented the proposed budget of $33,930,449 to SAD 17’s board of directors at a regular meeting Monday evening. That amount represents an increase in the district’s operating budget of 5.2 percent from last year, minus debt service.

Funding to SAD 17 under the state’s Essential Programs and Services model increased by $2,270,434, although $1.16 million of that amount is earmarked for debt on the new Paris Elementary School. Still, the district will get more than $1 million in new state money.

That compares to SAD 17’s gain of only $226,148 in fiscal 2006. Additionally, SAD 17 was the only district among the 15 largest school systems that fared poorly last year; the other 14 systems gained an average of $1.8 million. “Last year was a disaster,” Eastman said.

EPS is a complex method of distributing state aid. The state calculates the amount that each school system should spend to provide a basic education and awards money from there. The rationale behind EPS was to fund school systems at levels that would translate into tax relief for property owners.

In fiscal 2006, EPS was funded at 84 percent, forcing school district officials to try to garner support for a budget that translated into tax increases in some towns.

However EPS will be funded at 90 percent in fiscal 2007. The higher allocation to SAD 17 means about 70 percent of cuts have been restored, including library hours at the middle and high schools, a half-time gifted and talented teacher, educational field trips, and money for new textbooks and learning materials.

Still, the towns of Harrison, Hebron and Otisfield will have to pay a bigger slice of the budget pie this year because EPS is still not fully funded. Until the EPS funding level increases beyond 90 percent, the eight communities that make up SAD 17 will see mill-rate reductions, but not all of them will see their assessments decrease, Eastman said.

The state’s goal is to fully fund EPS in 2009. “All eight towns will see mill rate decreases. Not all eight towns will see total dollar decreases because their valuations have increased,” he said. “What the problem is with this funding model is it doesn’t do anything to cushion those huge increases.”

Property values increased year-to-year by more than 23 percent in Harrison and by more than 18 percent in Hebron and Otisfield.

The proposed budget will undergo workshops in all eight communities in April and will go before the SAD 17 board for adoption on May 1.

The EPS funding this year isn’t perfect, Eastman said. The district’s regional adjustment for salaries and benefits remained at 94 percent, which reduced its state allocation by $884,000.

But SAD 17 will see an increase of $196,000 in transportation funds. Last year the transportation formula hurt SAD 17 but benefited urban districts, which could show greater cost efficiencies by picking up a larger number of students in a shorter distance.

However SAD 17 will benefit this year due to some modifications in the formula. Moreover, the district will get a $152,000 “isolated small-school adjustment” that supports the community school model. “The transportation and adjustment (funds) were real pluses for us that we didn’t see last year,” Eastman said.

Eastman said one priority of the school district in fiscal 2007 is to expand all-day kindergarten to all elementary schools. A pilot program started last fall at Oxford Elementary School, where about 44 kindergarten students are attending school five days per week until the end of the academic year.

The program divides the Oxford students into two classes of 22 students each, allowing the three kindergarten teachers to give students more individual attention. “We find that has been working very well,” he said.

The district’s kindergarten enrollment stands at 253 children. Eastman said greater academic demands were placed on students by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which was passed by Congress in January 2002 and requires states to test children in reading and math every year in grades three through eight and at least once in high school.

“In the old days when we had a more play-based kindergarten, it was fine,” he said. “But now it’s become quite academic. We want to build a stronger foundation in kindergarten.”

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