TOPSHAM — An unprecedented turnout of voters at the School Administrative District 75 budget meeting approved adding $600,000 to next year’s spending plan for teacher pay increases.

The amendments – which raise the budget to $42.1 million and produce a 11 percent tax increase on SAD 75’s four member towns – reflect turbulent teacher salary negotiations between the School Board and Merrymeeting Teachers Association that have forced third-party mediation.

Teachers, many wearing crimson “Red for Ed(ucation)” shirts at the meeting, say their pay has not kept up with levels in surrounding school districts.

The budget as adopted by the School Board last month already included $500,000 as a placeholder for teacher raises, and nearly $28,000 for retirement and Medicare costs. But that would only mean an average $1,800 raise for each teacher.

That is “what we’ve always gone with,” Nicole Karod, president-elect of the teachers’ union said last month, “and it’s just not enough.”

Increases in nearby districts include $2,700 in Regional School Unit 5 (Freeport, Durham and Pownal), and $3,000 in Bath-area Regional School Unit 1, according to Marybeth Latti, a math intervention specialist.

According to information provided by the school district, a 10-year teacher with a bachelor of arts degree earns $43,800 annually in SAD 75, compared with more than $49,200 in Brunswick, more than $43,900 in Lisbon, $51,000 in RSU 1, $42,100 in RSU 2 (Hallowell and Richmond), and nearly $52,400 in RSU 5.

The SAD 75 share of family health benefits is 95 percent, the district reported, compared with 85 percent in Brunswick, 75 percent in Lisbon, 91 percent in RSU 1, 75 percent in RSU 2, and 94 percent in RSU 5.

The dispute packed the seats May 23 at the Orion Performing Arts center in a way not seen in decades at district budget meetings. Bowdoin Town Clerk Melanie Page reported 353 registered voters, including 223 from Topsham, attended the 2 1/2-hour meeting – the largest turnout she said she has seen in 20 years.

The amended budget now must go before voters in a district-wide validation referendum Tuesday, June 11. Polls will be open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. at the Topsham Fairgrounds Exhibition Hal; Cundy’s Harbor Community Building and Elijah Kellogg Church in Harpswell; Old Orr’s Island School House; Bowdoin Central School, and Bowdoinham Town Hall.

If voters reject the budget, it would have to be reworked and then brought to another district budget meeting, followed by another validation referendum.

If approved, the budget would require a $190 annual tax increase on a typical $209,000 Topsham home, and a $253 hike on a $434,000 Harpswell home, according to SAD 75 Business Manager Mark Conrad. Owners of homes assessed at $117,600 and $180,000 in Bowdoin and Bowdoinham would experience respective increases of $161 ad $224.

Amanda Stanley, a Topsham parent, proposed the first two amendments: adding nearly $405,000 to the $14.3 million regular instruction line for teacher salary increases, and more than $119,000 for special education teacher salaries.

She said the additions are necessary “to keep our schools competitive, to retain the best teachers, so that we don’t have children leaving because we don’t have the best educational experience for them here.”

Andrea Cram of Bowdoin, a middle school teacher in SAD 11, said she had applied for a position at Mt. Ararat 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.”

Lisa Dube of Bowdoin proposed a third amendment, which added nearly $76,000 to the $4.7 million student and staff support line item. That budget includes school counselors and health staff, among other faculty.

Susan Brown of Bowdoinham said that while the teachers deserve higher pay, she felt uncomfortable voting for money toward raises through budget amendments, since mediation is in progress.

“I’d like to trust that process,” she said, noting that since those talks are not public, “I’m not sure what’s happening; for that reason, I don’t feel comfortable voting for that.”

“My family can handle a tax increase,” Brown added. “… But I have questions about going further; what impact the debt service will have,” and the financial strain on her friends and neighbors who struggle with tax increases.

The largest component in next year’s overall spending increase is an estimated $1.5 million in interest for debt service, comprised primarily of the first interest payment toward the construction of a new Mt. Ararat High School.

In addition to interest payments, the first principal payments for that project come due in fiscal year 2021, district Business Manager Mark Conrad said.

“The increase will be double what it is (in fiscal year 2020),” Conrad said, resulting in a $4.5 million debt service payment to be faced a year from now.

“There will be significant increases,” he said.

Alex Lear can be reached at 780-9085 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Amanda Stanley of Topsham on May 23 successfully called for two amendments to the School Administrative District 75 budget for additional teacher salaries.

The SAD 75 budget meeting, held May 23 at the Orion Performing Arts Center in Topsham, drew 353 voters from Topsham, Harpswell, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham. Many people wore crimson “Red for Ed(ucation)” shirts in support of teacher pay increases.

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