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MSAD 1 residents to vote on budget Wednesday, learn about state funding in June

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Residents of Maine School Administrative District 1 member communities will vote Wednesday on the annual school budget and also will have to wait a little bit longer to find out if the state will help fund a new school as part of a right-sizing initiative.

MSAD 1 holds its district budget meeting Wednesday, April 11, at 7 p.m. at Presque Isle Middle School, where district voters will be asked to approve a $24.7 million budget for 2018-2019.

Of the $24.7 million, $8.8 million of the proposed budget would come from local property taxes, an increase of 4 percent across the district. Due to changes in the state’s real estate valuation of the district’s five communities, Presque Isle taxpayers would see a 2.9 percent increase from the school budget, while the others would see increases between 4 and 7.8 percent.  

If the budget is approved Wednesday, it then will appear for a vote during a validation referendum on May 1.

This next year’s budget is an attempt to pave the way for more efficient school spending in the coming years in tandem with the district’s right-sizing goals, said Clint Deschene, MSAD 1 assistant superintendent for business.

“We’re beginning to adopt models of operations so we could staff and support a district that has only three or four schools instead of five. We feel that’s inevitable.”

With some 50,000 square feet of unused space primarily across three Presque Isle schools, MSAD 1 officials are hoping to win state funding and local support for closing one or two schools and renovating the others in the years to come.

One conceptual plan calls for closing Pine Street Elementary while renovating the other three Presque Isle schools for additional grades and administrative space. Consolidating the schools would lead to long-term savings in building and staffing costs, Deschene said.  

Approximately 10 percent of MSAD 1’s annual budget, goes to keeping school buildings maintained, powered and heated, and Pine Street Elementary would need about $4 million in fixes, including a new roof, if it’s going to remain open in the long-term, Deschene said

The key factor going forward will be whether MSAD 1 qualifies for new state funding for major school capital construction, Deschene said.

MSAD 1 has three separate applications for funding related to Pine Street, Zippel Elementary and Presque Isle High School, and Department of Education staff visited the buildings late last year, Deschene said.

Deschene said the DOE staff comments boiled down to: “They’re older buildings, you’ve taken good care of them. That said, we see your needs,” such as older mechanical and heating systems and roofs.

“The question is: Are they in enough need that we need to fix them or replace them?” Deschene said, referring to the process the DOE uses to determine eligibility for state funding.

“Under-crowding is a difficult issue to score in their application,” Deschene said. “But with declining enrollments across the state, this isn’t an uncommon problem.”

While the DOE was supposed to announce its eligibility list in May, Deschene said the district was recently notified that the decisions are now set to be released June 13.

“That’s way further out than what we thought,” Deschene said.

The eligibility list will rank districts based on their needs and the available funding, and Deschene said MSAD 1 is bracing for the possibility that it won’t qualify since there are many other districts in the state with old schools.

If the district scores high, he said, a right-sizing consolidation could be done with minimal local funding.

“If we think there’s an error, we may appeal. If we score low, we’ll probably immediately begin the process locally because we have no other choice.” Without state funding, Deschene said, a right-sizing plan could be financed with local bonds.

Either way, any plans to close a school and renovate others would require the approval of local voters.

Depending on the state’s decision, Deschene said local voters could have two choices for a right-sizing plan on the ballot in November.

“We’re hopeful that the state sees us as one of the most easily solvable issues in the state,” Deschene said, adding that MSAD 1 hasn’t had a state-funded school construction project since Mapleton Elementary was built in the early 1970s.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the year-over-year increase in local property taxes. The average increase this year is 4 percent and 2.9 percent for Presque Isle.

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