Limestone residents pass school budget despite concerns over costs

10 months ago

LIMESTONE, Maine — Despite a likely mill rate increase, Limestone residents voted to pass their school budget as proposed Thursday evening.

The school budget meeting was delayed last week after residents ran out of time due to the town budget vote. Residents had demanded that both town and school leaders review their budgets after suspecting inaccurate numbers.

The school budget totals $4,756,393 compared to last year’s $4,341,088. The increases largely come from jumps in employee salaries and benefits, high school student tuition and a higher number of special education students, according to school leaders.

Town officials had previously predicted that a higher school budget could lead to a property tax rate increase of at least six mills. The current mill rate is 28.

But the Select Board won’t calculate the final mill rate until late summer or early fall, board member Chris Durepo said. Many new solar farms developed by various companies and 21 buildings that Green 4 Maine has purchased at Loring Commerce Centre need to be assessed for property taxes. The town’s audit is also still in progress, he said.

That did not stop several residents from trying to lower the school budget, in hopes of avoiding what they saw as costly burdens to taxpayers.

Early in the more than 90-minute meeting, resident Chuck Kelley motioned to table most budget articles so that the town could vote on their contribution to the school budget first. Moderator Alan Mulherin ruled that motion invalid because state law requires the town to vote on the warrant articles in order.

Limestone Community School will receive $2.8 million in state funding. School officials recommended the town contribute $518,451 toward the cost of funding public education but voluntarily raise an extra $969,052, which exceeds the state’s funding model.

Last year, residents contributed $629,864 in addition to the $490,373 required by the state’s funding model.

“That’s an almost $340,000 increase over last year’s volunteer contribution,” Kelley said. “It’s unrealistic to expect taxpayers to absorb such an increase.”

Kelley later attempted to pass an additional local contribution of $800,000 instead of the proposed $969,052. But residents defeated that suggestion 45 to 16 in a written ballot.

Residents approved the $969,052 with a vote of 41 to 14 in another written ballot.

All budget articles passed as proposed but not without many questions from residents on what exactly led to the sharp increases.

Resident Julie Weston attempted to reduce the proposed $1,753,851 budget for regular instruction back to the $1,700,000 that passed last year.

“As Chuck [Kelley] said, the town cannot sustain consistent increases. You can’t expect people to stay in town when they know how high their taxes are going up,” Weston said.

Weston’s motion failed after Superintendent William Dobbins explained the rising costs of sending Limestone’s high school students to Caribou and Fort Fairfield schools.

The district expects at least 75 high school students this year, Dobbins said. But the tuition rate is set in December for the coming year, even before Limestone knows how many students they’ll be sending.

“We’ve been seeing [tuition] increases of at least $600-$800 per student each year,” Dobbins said.

This year’s total cost for high school students is expected to be $873,509.

Increased costs have also affected the school’s special education budget. Voters approved a $168,946 increase from $351,108 to $520,054.

Thirty-five elementary students and 14 high school students had individualized education plans last year. Those are personalized plans for special education students that school districts must follow by law, Dobbins said.

In the fall, 40 elementary students and 12 high school students will receive special education services. Despite the decrease for high school students, there is still a larger number receiving services at Opportunity Training Center in Presque Isle, Dobbins noted.

“It costs $75,000 per student [for OTC education] and by law we have to go by a student’s IEP,” Dobbins said.

Voters also approved the following budget increases: other instruction, $64,133, up from $45,710 last year; student and staff support, $287,858, up from $248,881; system administration, $159,987, up from $125,878; school administration, $204,502, up from $185,867; transportation and buses, $341,827, up from $300,041; facilities maintenance, $552,321, up from $529,202; and debt service and other commitments, $871,350, up from $853,901.

Of the debt service, $703,847 comes from pass-through money from Limestone’s contribution toward the new Caribou Community School. Limestone was still part of RSU 39 when they agreed to build a new school. The pass-through money has no impact on the school’s expense budget, Dobbins said.

Kelley attempted to reduce the system administration budget from $159,987 to $126,000 and the facilities maintenance budget from $552,321 to $509,202 but voters rejected both proposals.

Residents Penny and John Michaud proposed reducing the school administration budget from $204,502 to $150,987 but voters also rejected that proposal.