CHESTERVILLE — The Regional School Unit 9 administrative team has trimmed the 2017-18 fiscal year budget from an initial 5.4 percent increase over last year to a 2.65 percent increase, or $33.56 million, Superintendent Tom Ward told selectmen Thursday night.

“We’re now going through the budget line by line with the school board, he said.

Incremental increases in wages in the past few years have reduced the number of people leaving for higher-paying jobs in neighboring districts, he said. 

“Seventy-five percent of the budget is people. They don’t expect top dollar, but we need to treat people fairly,” Ward said.

Residents expressed concerns over bus sizes and shuttle buses with only one or two students on them. 

Ward said smaller buses and vans have been purchased. Some are propane buses.

Addressing education funding, the superintendent said, “There is a pull between property owners and schools.”

For years, the state has not met its share of educational funding, Ward said. Two years ago, it stopped paying teacher retirement costs. In his next biennial budget, Republican Gov. Paul LePage proposes eliminating all administration costs.

When general purpose aid funding is dropped, the educational mill rate increases and towns must make up the difference through property taxes, Ward said.

The state determines school funding each year through the Essential Programs and Services formula. Districts that want more than the state funds must cover the difference.

Co- and extra-curricular activities are important to school districts but are above the amount funded by the state, Ward said. Some students rely on those programs to give them a reason to attend school.

Balancing available EPS funds with what taxpayers can afford often comes at the expense of class size and after-school activities, he said. 

When the budget comes before voters, there is a separate article on the amount the district wants above EPS, Ward said.

Addressing revenue, Ward said RSU 9 has several funding sources in addition to property taxes.

This year, the district began billing Medicare for students in day-treatment programs. There was more income than expected. The district plans to bill for the three life skills programs it offers.

A four-year physical education program grant was used to update equipment and provide trainings at no cost to the district. A multimillion-dollar five-year 21st Century grant provides after-school and summer programs for at-risk kids.

“Next year’s freshman class will graduate with a proficiency-based diploma. This program is raising their aspirations,” Ward said.

Mt. Blue High School has very strong music and sports booster programs, which help pay for equipment, instruments and scholarships. Students are also required to pay part of the costs of participation, he said.

A bond proposal could help pay for paving, roof replacements and other improvements, the district’s top administrator said.

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Tom Ward, superintendent of Regional School Unit 9, gives a presentation on the school budget during the Chesterville selectmen meeting Thursday night.

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