Vassalboro School Board members reviewed an unfinished 2018-19 budget and discussed it with budget committee members at two sequential meetings March 29. The preliminary $7.9 million budget at the beginning of the meetings would require an increase in local taxes of more than $495,000, which Town Manager Mary Sabins said would amount to somewhere around $1.30 for each $1,000 of valuation (about one and one-third mil).
However, that figure is already obsolete, according to AOS (Alternative Organizational Structure) #92 Superintendent Eric Haley and Finance Director Paula Pooler. For example, they had projected a nine percent increase in insurance costs, and had learned earlier that day that the increase will be zero, cutting about $63,000 in projected expenditures.
Haley and Pooler emphasized the number of expensive unknowns in each annual school budget. For example, when a special education student who needs a full-time educational technician moves into or out of Vassalboro, budget needs can increase or decrease by thousands of dollars.
Tuition costs are also hard to predict. The state does not set its figures until late in the calendar year, and the cost varies among the different high schools Vassalboro students attend, with Waterville the least expensive and Erskine Academy the most. If the state figures are higher than expected, or if more Vassalboro eighth-graders choose Erskine, or if more high-school sophomores choose the vocational schools as an option, tuition will be underfunded.
Special education is one reason the 2018-19 budget is projected to increase, Haley said. Another is teachers’ and educational technicians’ salaries, which have been negotiated. He shared results of a survey showing that Vassalboro pays most of its teachers and educational technicians less than they would get in comparable jobs in nearby school systems like Fairfield, Oakland or Madison.
Budget committee and school board members have another joint meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 10, after the school board meeting at 6 p.m. that evening (a week earlier than usual because of April school vacation).
The budget committee will also meet at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 5, in the town office. That evening’s selectmen’s meeting will begin at 6 p.m., also in the town office.
In addition to the budget, school board and budget committee members briefly discussed consequences of dissolving AOS #92. Vassalboro Community School will have its own part-time superintendent; school board members intend to contract with Waterville and Winslow to get the same central office services they have been getting, delivered by many of the same people, with costs determined by the same formula that has divided AOS central office costs among Vassalboro, Waterville and Winslow.
While Haley and most school board members favor a three-year contract, several budget committee members and selectmen advised starting with a one-year contract. Haley said he plans to provide enough staff members, replacements and two new hires, to serve all three former AOS schools; but he needs a three-year commitment to justify staffing. He doubts Vassalboro would find less expensive services elsewhere; Pooler warned Vassalboro might end up with none.
School Board Chairman Kevin Levasseur agreed, saying no other agency “has been beating down my door” to offer a competing proposal.
School board member Susan Tuthill said a three-year contract would allow a year to adjust, not only to the new arrangement but also to a new superintendent and principal; the second year would allow evaluation; and if problems developed, the third year could be used to explore alternatives.
Selectman John Melrose has talked with people in two other towns where go-it-alone schools have moved to in-house services. Lauchlin Titus, chairman of the selectmen, compared the proposed contract for school services with Vassalboro’s alewife harvesting contract, which started as annual and when the arrangement proved satisfactory went to three and now five years.
Pooler and Vassalboro Community School Principal Dianna Gram said the comparison is inaccurate, because Vassalboro is not “jumping into the unknown”; the school has had nine years of satisfactory service from the AOS office.
Gram was accompanied at the School board and budget committee meetings by her successor, Dr. Megan Allen, who will become principal when Gram retires at the end of June.
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