MECHANIC FALLS — The few residents at Wednesday’s public hearing on RSU 16’s proposed budget offered fewer objections to the $20 million price tag but did offer suggestions that might lead to long-term savings.

Superintendent Tina Meserve said state officials determined that the district was eligible for assistance in purchasing three new school buses, but the recommendation in the budget was to get only two new buses.

John Hawley wondered if this is a smart move given that the district has 31 buses, and replacing two a year would mean the district was counting on them lasting about 15 years.

Hawley also said there were no guarantees for the number of buses that state officials might be willing to assist the district in purchasing in any given year.

“Tom Kelly, our transportation director, figured we’d be OK with two this year if we went for another two next year,” Meserve said.

Saying that health insurance costs keep going up, resident Bonnie Payette asked whether officials had considered taking health insurance out of the benefit  package for employees.

Payette said the town had made significant changes in policies covering town employees, apparently giving employees a deal as good or better than what they had before at a lower cost.

Meserve said that due to some unique factors, involving obligations for covering retired school personnel, the district really couldn’t go in that direction.

Carol Lundberg was concerned with the implications of the $95,000 budgeted for a feasibility study on how to handle overcrowding in the district, most notably at the Whittier Middle School in Poland.

Lundberg said the idea behind taking seventh and eighth grade students out of community schools in the three towns and creating a single middle school was to save money. “We were told this was going to save money, and now this is going to cost more,” he said.

School Committee member Mary Ella Jones said there are other significant advantages, a shared curriculum being one of them.

Meserve said the school population in RSU 16 seems to be growing.

“The Minot Consolidated School and the Poland Community School are crowded now after getting rid of the middle school students,” she said.

While the feasibility study would address how to handle the situation, Payette wondered whether school officials had in mind to combine lower grade levels across the district.

Meserve said there had been some talk of maybe having all kindergarten through grade 2 in one school with third to fifth grades in another school in another town.

“Our communities love their community schools,” Meserve said. “Parents are OK with seventh and eighth grades but are not so sure about sending younger students to one school.”

While the budget is increasing by about $750,000 and topping the $20 million mark, the effect of the budget on local property taxes is estimated to be minimal.

In the case of Mechanic Falls, Meserve predicted it would cause taxes on a property assessed at $100,000 to increase by $24.73 a year.

The next budget hearings are on Wednesday, April 2, at 6 p.m. at the Poland Community School and Thursday, April 3, at 6 p.m. at the Minot Consolidated School.

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