The School Administrative District 61 board affirmed a budget Monday that showed a zero percent increase from this year, and included new programs to provide laptops to high school students and start researching a new approach to literacy education.

The total $25.7 million budget would affect the tax rate differently in Bridgton, Naples, Sebago and Casco, with the impact averaging out to an increase of 1.7 percent. Tax rate impacts are preliminary, Phillips stressed, and depend on the amount of state subsidy and the relative property valuations of the four towns.

The budget will be presented to residents at a public hearing March 30 at 6 p.m. at Lake Region High School. During the same meeting, board members will decide on a plan for the future of the district’s buildings.

Superintendent Patrick Phillips said the education funding in the federal Recovery and Reinvestment Act was a welcome relief in a year that could have been much worse. The district will regain the $581,000 curtailed from this year’s budget in November and will get around $423,000 for Title I and special education programs. The refund for the curtailment could come as early as April, Phillips said, and other federal funding is likely to come starting in July.

“The addition of all of those things has been a very positive set of developments for our district,” Phillips said.

School board member Donna Norton was less enthusiastic about the federal money, however, saying she was worried about three years from now, when the money dries up.

“I’m concerned about using that money very carefully,” Norton said, adding that she didn’t want to use the money as part of the operations budget, because the district would have to make cuts or raise taxes in a couple of years to replace it.

Janice Barter, school board member from Naples, said she hoped to be able to access federal money for the new bus garage and renovations to the high school and vocational center, but she wasn’t yet counting on it.

“I’m kind of being cautiously optimistic,” Barter said, adding that it was helpful to receive back the money curtailed from this year’s budget.

The budget process was very challenging this year, Phillips said, largely due to a lack of detailed information such as how much money the district will receive from the state and federal government.

“It’s like building a structure on sand,” Phillips said.

The administrators’ and teachers’ unions are still in negotiation with the school board, Phillips said, and without knowing the subsidy amounts, the budget could still change. Additionally, if the school board decides to adopt the proposed facilities plan, additional savings from closing Bridgton Memorial School and moving students from Crooked River Elementary School in Casco to Songo Locks School in Naples could be added to the budget.

The modular at Songo Locks to house Crooked River students would add $650,000-850,000 to the budget, though the state has agreed to cover one third of this expense.

To help with the budget process, Phillips asked teachers and principals to identify important program enhancements, as well as areas where the costs could be offset.

The leadership team looked at a list of possible enhancements in order to set priorities for the coming year. One of the programs that they felt was important was to provide laptops for all high school students. The fact that Gov. Baldacci has proposed the same initiative statewide makes it more compelling for residents and cheaper for the district, Phillips said. He expected it to cost slightly more than $100,000 for the first year and around $150,000-160,000 for the next three years of the lease-purchase agreement.

Besides the costs of the computers themselves, the program would require hardware, a technician to take care of the additional laptops, increased bandwidth, and upgrades to the network.

Middle School Principal Peter Mortenson told the board on March 9 that teachers are using computers as more than just word processors, and they are learning along with students. After having their own laptops to use in middle school, ninth-graders then lose their access.

“I’m very excited,” Phillips said. “I think it’s the right thing to be doing.”

Also new in the proposed budget is $25,000 to research and pilot a new literacy program for kindergarten through fifth grade, Phillips said. Like many schools, SAD 61 elementary schools have moved away from a formalized, universal literacy program towards something developed by individual teachers. The problem is that this more flexible approach doesn’t work with all readers, Phillips said.

Teachers would like to follow a program that is based on scientific research, and a new federal law will require children have access to research-based programs before they are referred to special education. Implementing a new literacy program would be a one-time cost, and thus would be a good use for federal dollars, Phillips said.

Increases in the budget would be offset partially by reduced projections for heating oil and gasoline costs and a decrease in the district’s workers compensation insurance rates.

Health insurance costs, too, are lower than expected. Phillips said there will be a zero percent increase to districts across the state for employees’ health plans, which is considerably lower than the 15 percent increase previously projected.

“I think the bright spot was the health insurance coming in as a zero percent increase,” Barter said.

If this cost had gone up 15 percent, the increase in the budget would have been $300,000. Without this increase, and with other costs going down, Phillips said he was able to add new programs and retain zero percent growth in the overall budget.

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