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Voters overwhelmingly approve nearly $11.8 million SAD 27 budget

FORT KENT, Maine — More than 70 voters who attended a public meeting at Fort Kent Community High School on Monday overwhelmingly approved a proposed $11,766,575 2018-2019 Maine School Administrative District 27 budget.

The district serves the communities of Fort Kent, New Canada, St. Francis, St. John and Wallagrass.

Only one resident raised his hand to signify opposition to several articles in the budget, and nobody presented any arguments against the budget.

The proposed 2018-2019 budget is nearly $20,000 less than the previous district budget. School administrators’ efforts to reduce the SAD 27 budget have been ongoing since the 2014-2015 school year, when the budget reached $12,400,950.

“This is my least favorite night of the entire school year because I have to sit here and talk about money and the lack of it and where it comes from rather than talk about the positive things we’re doing,” SAD 27 Superintendent Ben Sirois said at Monday’s meeting.

He nevertheless cited some of the positive elements that have helped to reduce costs, in particular the regionalization efforts between the Valley school districts of SAD 27, SAD 33, and the Madawaska School District.

“The savings from regional efforts; which include sharing a curriculum coordinator, the director of food service, the coordinator of innovation and community outreach, several shared teaching staff, a shared adult/continuing education, in addition to grant funded positions, professional development, software, and additional state subsidy bonuses for working toward regionalization amount to approximately $420,000 over the current and next year’s budget,” Sirois said.

Despite these and other efforts, and although the proposed 2018-2019 budget is lower than last year, residents of SAD 27 can expect a property tax increase of 1.17 mills if they validate the proposed budget at a referendum vote next week.

The two factors motivating the potential increase, according to Sirois, are the withdrawal of Eagle Lake from SAD 27 last November, and a shift from state subsidies to more local funding.

“It is unfortunate that the 2004 voter mandate for the State of Maine to fund public education at 55 percent has never come to fruition,” Sirois said. “Currently, the state’s contribution is at 47 percent. With the costs to run schools increasing every year as salaries, health care, and teacher retirement costs go up, this shift to the local communities is not sustainable and not fair, especially in rural Maine where populations continue to age and younger generations leave for greater opportunities.”

The proposed budget is 11 percent above what the state calculates as the bare minimum for “essential programs and services” or EPS, which does not take into account such factors as special education costs, extra-curricular costs, transportation of students over long distances, or increased heating, energy or fuel costs.

Sirois pointed out that of the 185 school districts in the state with valid EPS submission data, 92 percent are over what the state determined as EPS by an average of 29 percent.

Declining enrollment continues to be a factor for SAD 27, as well as other Valley schools. Fort Kent will graduate 61 seniors this year, out of only 120 students graduating between the three districts working together on regionalization.

Also at the meeting, voters authorized the formation of a regional service center to oversee shared regional services between the local districts.

“We’re all struggling. If we don’t start thinking together and joining together we’re going to have less, and less and less,” Sirois said. “We’ve got to join together; we’ve got to.”

Voters will make a final determination on whether to pass the proposed 2018-2019 SAD 27 budget at a validation referendum on Tuesday, June 12, at 6 p.m. at Fort Kent Community High School.

“We’re asking for you to support this budget; we’ve really done our best,” Sirois said.

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