TOPSHAM — Out in full force, teachers and their supporters convinced School Administrative District 75 voters on Thursday to add $600,000 for teacher salaries to the proposed school budget.

The overall $42.1 million budget now faces a district-wide vote in Topsham, Harpswell, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham at the polls June 11.

The additional $600,000 would increase local property taxes for education by an estimated 11 percent, SAD 75 Business Manager Mark Conrad said. Broken down by town, the overall approved $42.1 million spending plan would increase taxes in Bowdoin by 10.69 percent, Bowdoinham taxes by 10.99 percent, Topsham by 9.05 percent and by 13.85 percent in Harpswell.

If adopted, the spending plan for 2019-20 would increase taxes an estimated $160 for a typical Bowdoin home assessed at $117,600; $223 for a typical Bowdoinham home assessed at $180,000; $253 for a Harpswell home assessed at $434,000 and $190 for a typical Topsham home valued at $209,000.

SAD 75 budget meetings are not normally well attended, drawing about 30 people. Thursday’s district budget meeting drew 353 voters, plus some non-voters who sat in designated seating at the Orion Performing Arts Center. Many people wore red to support the push by the Merrymeeting Teacher’s Association to make salaries in SAD 75 more competitive with other school districts in the area.

As a starting point to begin bridging the gap, the teachers association called on the board to raise its proposed $41.5 million budget by another $600,000. While the school board already had set $500,000 aside for salary increases, it still wouldn’t allow for competitive salary increases, the association argued.

According to the association, a teacher with 15 years of experience and a master’s degree earns $61,454 in Brunswick, $62,898 in Bath and $64,316 at Freeport; but would only earn $54,300 in SAD 75.

With 20 years of experience, the gap widens. The teachers association says such a teacher would earn $69,635 in Brunswick, $76,688 in Bath, and $68,431 in Freeport, and $58,800 in SAD 75.

“I went to apply for a position here at the middle school but recognized that I’d be taking a significant pay cut given my tenure and could not afford to take that pay cut to come here,” said Andrea Cram of Bowdoin, who is a 15-year, national board-certified middle school teacher now working at School Administrative District 11.

Other residents who spoke at the meeting are concerned about further increases to their towns’ tax rates.

“I frankly have a hard time with the budget that is being proposed in the first place, never mind putting increases on top of that,” said Eric Lusk of Harpswell.

The number of Harpswell students continues to decline, he argued.

“The incentive to go shopping for a better deal with a school system that is not going to keep putting these massive property tax increases in front of Harpswell is going to become more and more tempting,” Lusk said.

Dorothy Carrier of Harpswell, a former board member, said the board wants to do all it can to provide teachers “with the ability to learn, to make a living and not impact the ordinary taxpayer that is footing the bill.”

There are community members who have to make decisions about whether they are buying insurance, paying a prescription, buying groceries or improving their living situation. Those people have to be taken into consideration when it comes to raising money to fund the schools, Carrier said.

“We don’t have control, we can’t come back later and say we didn’t want to take that deal,” said Jon Beede, a Mt. Ararat Middle School teacher. “But please, really, the economy’s turned around. Can we have some more to keep up with inflation? Everybody has weathered some pretty difficult things over the past decade: the closing of the base, an administration in Augusta that was frankly hostile to education. We are very responsible people. That is why you’ve gotten the deal that you have gotten for the last decade.”

Some expressed frustration with how the teachers union sought to add further salary increases to the budget in the midst of ongoing contract negotiations with the district.

“I’m uncomfortable voting for this in this form because as I understand it, mediation is still happening and I’d like to trust that process,” said Susan Brown of Bowdoinham, a former school board member. “Do I think that the teachers deserve higher pay? I absolutely do.”

Brown said while her family can handle a tax increase, “I have questions about going further, what impact the debt service will have and for my friends and neighbors who cannot handle that increase in tax.”

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