ROCKLAND, Maine — The Rockland-area school board left Monday night’s inaugural budget meeting faced with the realization that without cuts or other savings, the local communities will have to raise an additional $3.2 million in property taxes.
That would mean an average homeowner in Rockland would be paying an additional $258 in property taxes next year.
Board member Donald Robishaw Jr. of Rockland said the budget in front of the board was “absolutely ridiculous.”
Board member Esther “Tess” Kilgour of Rockland said this situation is why the district must combine its two middle schools into one and its two high schools into one. The consolidations would save considerable money and some of that should be re-invested into programs, Kilgour said.
Board Chairman Steve Roberts of Rockland said the district is not ready for merging those schools for the upcoming school year. He also cautioned that the board should not assume that the worst-case scenario will occur.
“We shouldn’t be warning people of a 100-foot tsunami when only a 15-foot wave is likely,” Roberts said after the meeting.
The discussions occurred as the board began its review of a $27 million proposed budget for the 2015-2016 school year. The $3.2 million gap between projected expenses and current revenues is due to a combination of factors. Among them are an expected loss of up to $800,000 in state aid, a net loss of $1.7 million due to the withdrawal of St. George from the school district, $200,000 less in MaineCare reimbursement and an expected additional $545,000 in expenses for negotiated salary increases and higher insurance costs.
Superintendent John McDonald stressed to the board that the $27 million proposal presented Monday night included all the requests from all school administrators in the district. He said that he and the business manager are going through the requests and that a final budget proposal would be less. How much less, however, is not yet known.
Business manager Peter Orne said while the district must adapt to the state aid loss of $800,000, the administration has a duty to manage the remainder of the effects of the St. George withdrawal and that loss of $1.7 million so that, at the very least, that impact is minimized.
“Not identifying areas to reduce the potential $1.7 million impact would be irresponsible on my part,” Orne said.
Kilgour said Rockland, which is the largest community in what will be a five-community school district starting July 1, will shoulder the bulk of any increase. Rockland will be paying 42 percent of any increase so a $3.2 million hike to the district members would translate to an additional $1.3 million in property taxes.
That would mean a Rockland home assessed at $150,000 would pay an additional $258 in property taxes for the schools alone.
Rockland already has a property tax burden well above the state average as well as a median household income below the state average. The Maine Bureau of Revenue Services compiles a list each year of full-value property tax rates which shows what a comparison of rates are for all municipalities if all are adjusted to 100 percent of market value. Rockland’s rate in 2012 — the most recent year available — was $20.11 per $1,000 of assessment. This was the 27th highest in Maine, compared to a state average of $13.99.
Rockland’s median household income is $37,547, compared to the state average of $48,453, according to the U.S. Census.
City municipal officials met with school leaders in February to voice concern about the costs for Rockland taxpayers and asked the district to look at changing the funding formula that assesses local share on the remaining five member towns in RSU 13 — Rockland, Thomaston, Owls Head, South Thomaston and Cushing. Nothing has been discussed about that since the February meeting.
Kilgour and Robishaw maintained during Monday night’s meeting that the board directed the former superintendent more than a year ago to begin the consolidation of the middle schools and high schools. Board member Carol Bachofner of Rockland said after the meeting that the consolidations need to occur for 2015-2016. McDonald is in his first year as superintendent of the district.
The board voted in August 2013 for the consolidation to occur by September 2015, but in April 2014 the board agreed that it needed more time to gather public input. Roberts said Monday night that the board needs to get the community behind the mergers for them to be successful.
The district has two middle schools — Rockland District Middle School with 223 students and Thomaston Grammar School with 132. The two middle schools are located less than 4 miles apart.
Oceanside High School West and East are 5 miles apart. The West school in Thomaston serves 281 students in grades eight and nine while the East facility in Rockland serves 447 sophomores, juniors and seniors. The district also will have four elementary schools next year, three of which have enrollments of less than 100.
RSU 13’s next budget meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the McLain School in Rockland.