The Regional School Unit 5 Board of Directors unanimously adopted a fiscal year 2021 budget by remote meeting April 1. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

FREEPORT — A proposed $35.4 million budget for Regional School Unit 5, which the Board of Directors unanimously adopted by remote meeting April 1, is now due to go to two district-wide votes.

But the coronavirus pandemic makes it uncertain whether those votes will occur on time.

The spending plan is up 3.62% over current spending and would raise taxes 4.36%. The hike could result in a 3.16% increase in the district’s tax assessment to Freeport, 2.63% to Durham and 2.47% to Pownal.

A Freeport taxpayer with a home valued at $200,000 could pay an additional $90; taxpayers in Durham and Pownal with a home worth the same could pay an extra $106 and $90, respectively, according to Finance Director Ann Cromer. Those estimates use 2019 town valuation and tax rates, since 2020 numbers are not yet available.

RSU 5 Superintendent Becky Foley said she still hopes to hold the district budget meeting May 27, “but things keep changing” amid the coronavirus pandemic. Although the meeting – at which voters grant the budget preliminary approval, prior to the June 9 budget validation referendum – was to be held at Durham Community School, she recommended holding it at Freeport High School.

Freeport High has a 9,000-square-foot gym that can hold 1,100 people, while Durham’s 6,600-square-foot gym holds 750, Foley said. Should the threat of the virus have waned by that point, social distancing may still be necessary, hence the need for a bigger space.

Some questions from board members concerned any extended impact of the pandemic. The district does have the option of starting fiscal year 2021 this July with its 2020 budget, if unable to approve a new spending plan by that point. But that’s a course Foley prefers not to take, since it would mean new necessary positions would not be funded.

“For us it creates a lot of hurdles that I’d rather not have to overcome,” she said.

Board member Valy Steverlynck suggested that if budget approval is delayed past June 30, the district could begin fiscal year 2021 with the current budget but approve a new one as soon as possible, “so that we don’t see the hit for the entire year, but just for a couple weeks.”

“I think that’s exactly what would happen,” Chairwoman Michelle Ritcheson said.

Board member Kate Brown asked if there could be budget implications if regular classes aren’t able to resume this September.

“I think there would just be savings,” Foley said, pointing to parked school buses and the lack of need to hire substitute teachers, for example.

Of the approximately $28 million that could be assessed to the three towns, Freeport’s part could be about $19.7 million (up nearly $858,000), Durham’s $5.4 million (up about $190,000) and Pownal $3.2 million (up nearly $112,000).

RSU 5 officials expect the district to receive $5.42 million in state aid to education, an increase of approximately $456,000. The district is also using $160,000 from its undesignated fund balance to reduce tax impacts.

The largest driver behind the budget hike is a $1.5 million (4.4%) increase in estimated salary and benefits. Additional staff includes a Freeport High School math teacher and Morse Street School kindergarten teacher, both $82,000 including benefits, along with a half-time social worker at Freeport High ($41,000), and a half-time guidance counselor and half-time pre-kindergarten teacher at Durham Community School (both $41,000).

RSU 5 looks to increase its substitute teacher pay line by $60,000 to more realistically reflect that need, according to Foley. Looking at historical spending over a three-year period, should the district find it has underbudgeted something, it increases that funding, she said.

Since some of its lease purchases are cycling out, RSU 5 could see a drop in that line item from nearly $365,000 to about $96,000 – a $268,000 decrease. Other cost reductions include a Mast Landing School teacher ($82,000), to address an expected decline in enrollment from 234 to 222. Since grants are funding two special education technicians, the district is able to cut $72,000 from next year’s budget.

Budget information is available at rsu5.org/Content2/budget2021.

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