Zoom session of the RSU 16 school board as it heard about a proposed budget for next year. RSU 16

In its first online-only meeting, the RSU 16 School Board is eyeing a proposed $24.2 million budget that would increase spending in the three-town school district by 7.6%.

The proposal spending plan, which is not yet final and will require public approval, hikes pay for teachers and support staff by 5%, adds a world languages teacher at Poland Regional High School and covers the tab for an expected 13.5% rise in special education costs in the coming academic year.

The budget consumed most of Monday’s session of the 15-member board from Poland, Minot and Mechanic Falls but officials also discussed the difficulties created by the coronavirus pandemic that forced the district to shutter its classrooms last month.

It took a while for the panel to figure out its first Zoom meeting, with one member visible but silent.

“Before we take any votes, we’ll check back and make sure Mike is there,” said the panel’s chairwoman, Mary Martin.

“I can see him,” added Melanie Harvey.

Martin said that proceeding online, which mostly went smoothly, required extra “patience and understanding.”

Superintendent Kenneth Healey told the board how much the effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 has impacted education.

“This world has been placed upside down like nobody’s business,” Healey said.

Amy Hediger, the assistant superintendent, said everything “moved really quickly” after the unexpected shutdown on March 13 and swift shift to online teaching. They did it all, she said, despite having no plans for a crisis like the one everyone is dealing with.

Healey said he doesn’t like what’s happened but is impressed how educators have been able to do the impossible. “Learning is happening” despite everything, the superintendent said.

Officials said they’re still trying to figure out if it’s possible to have some sort of graduation ceremony at the end of the year. Seniors have told them they’re not interested in a virtual ceremony.

The budget for next year will be established by the board in early June, to be followed by a budget meeting that’s normally held in public — its status is unclear given physical distancing rules and crowd size restrictions — and then a public referendum on the budget held at the same time as the state primary on July 14.

As it stands, the proposed budget would increase property taxes by $62.69 per $100,000 in assessed value in Poland, $18.42 in Mechanic Falls and $61.61 in Minot.

Healey said most of the increase is part of an effort to raise teacher salaries so that starting educators earn $40,000 or more annually. As it is, he said, RSU 16 wages are lower than the regional average.

He said he’s hit the brakes on any nonrequired spending this year since the closure and is trying to secure permission to use the savings for a new reserve fund that could help cushion next year’s budget. Normally, money that’s left over can’t be used until another year passes, he said.

Resident Aaron Ouelette urged board members to pare down the spending where possible.

“This is going to be a really tumultuous time,” he warned and he’s concerned that asking for more could be a problem for many people.

“Our three towns really need this break,” Ouelette said.

Two members of the board opposed moving forward with the proposed budget figures — Travis Ritchie and Stephen Holbrook — but all the others present voted in favor of it.

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