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Towns to discuss SAD 17 budget
OXFORD HILLS — Representatives from the eight towns in SAD 17 plan to meet in Paris tonight to discuss the school budget, which may require an 11 percent increase in property assessments next year.
Paris Selectboard Chairman Sam Elliot organized the workshop and invited selectboard and budget committee chairmen to attend.
The purpose is to discuss what effect the increase will have on individual town budgets, Elliot said during an interview Friday.
"We need to think about its impact to the towns and, if it's a concern for the towns, how might we best approach the issue we have in front of us," Elliot said.
A preliminary budget forecast, presented to the school board earlier this month, suggests SAD 17 will need to increase assessments 11 percent district-wide in order to raise the full local share required by the state.
If the district doesn't raise an additional $1,864,089, it could risk losing state funding.
The state is requiring towns to raise assessments even though it doesn't pay its full share, Elliot said.
"The only way we have to do that is a property tax increase and that is a very unfair way to do this.
"It's people's homes and property. To tax them out of it so they have to sell it because they can't afford the taxes ... it's not the way this should be working," Elliot said.
On Friday, Harrison Selectboard Chair William Winslow said he planned to attend the workshop. According to the preliminary budget, Harrison could see its assessments increase more than $300,000.
Winslow said the current per-pupil cost disproportionately affects Harrison – the town has a small population but pays a large share of the school budget – 21.06 percent in 2013.
"It's to the point where it's getting hard for a native to stay in Harrison because of the high taxes," Winslow said.
Norway Selectboard Chair Russ Newcomb said he planned to attend the workshop and exchange ideas with other towns, but wasn't under any illusions as to what they might accomplish.
"To control the amount that the school board needs to spend to provide a good education, that's pretty tough," Newcomb said.
Elliot said that no SAD 17 representatives had been invited to the meeting, intended to be a brainstorming session for the towns.
"We don't need anyone from the school board ... there to tell us what to do or what not to do," he said.
SAD 17 Superintendent Rick Colpitts said he was not invited to the workshop but would be happy to address whatever concerns Elliot may have about the possible budget.
"He has yet to come and personally and talk to me about his concerns, so I don't know what his concerns are," Colpitts said.
"All I know is he's come to a couple of school board meetings ... the board had a healthy discussion about budget and what they wanted to do and the next thing I know he's calling a meeting of selectmen."
Colpitts agrees a possible increase in the local share and the district's federal grants are important issues that should be addressed, but unless the state allows the district to pay less than required, he will need to recommend the assessment increase.
One of Elliot's concerns is the federal grants SAD 17 has received or is applying for.
Last year the district received a $1.2 million Physical Education Program grant and applied for a $3 million grant this year to support science and technology learning.
Although federal money is useful, the funding burden is shifted to the district when it runs out, Elliot said – the PEP grant paid for dozens of pieces of new fitness equipment, but he worries the cost of maintaining and replacing them will fall to local taxpayers.
"These grant programs tend to drift into nothing ... it's nice when you get it but the problem is, can you afford to pick it up when it ends?" he asked.
On Friday, Pat Carson, SAD 17 student health coordinator and author of several grant applications, said the district isn't in the habit of "chasing money" – it selects grants that align with its goals and mission.
"If that grant is outside your mission, or outside the things you're passionate about or focused on, it doesn't make much sense to change direction because it takes you that much longer to get there in the end," Carson said.
SAD 17 is conservative in its grant writing, Carson said. He estimated he looks at around three times as many grants as the district applies for.
As far as paying for grants moving forward, Carson said the answer is less clear – it will depend on the economy and level of state funding.
Some programs, like Roberts Farm, can be supported through smaller grants without direct local property taxes, according to Carson.
Wealthier areas may not rely as much on grant writing, Carson said, but for most school districts "grants are an absolute necessity to meet the needs of students in the community."
The workshop will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Paris Fire Station.