School Administrative District 75’s district budget meeting, held June 25 at the Orion Performing Arts Center in Topsham, drew 33 voters. That number includes School Board members, who practiced social distancing while on stage. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

TOPSHAM — In about 45 minutes at June 25’s in-person district budget meeting, 33 voters from School Administrative District 75’s four towns granted preliminary approval to next year’s $46 million budget.

Although spending is up 9.3%, increased revenue means local average tax assessments among the district’s four towns could decrease 1%.

An average home in Topsham assessed at $221,200 could see a $10 tax bill decrease. Taxes on a $423,000 Harpswell home could drop $43, and a $118,750 Bowdoin home could see a $19 reduction. Bowdoinham, the sole town with an increase, would see a $5 bump. Those estimates are based on January local valuation and home value numbers, and the assessment changes reflect state property valuation and student enrollment, Finance Director Mark Conrad said.

As in April when the SAD 75 Board of Directors adopted the budget, members Tyler Washburn and Eric Lusk opposed it, and member Alison Hawkes also stated that while she supports the district, she doesn’t back the budget process, given the uncertainties caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“As other neighboring communities – Bath, Brunswick, Freeport – have all looked at potential reductions ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic, I can’t support this article,” Washburn said of the state/local essential programs and services funding allocation item.

Next year’s spending plan is largely offset by $18.7 million in state aid to education, up 23.1%. But Lusk pointed to a drop in state funding during the 2009 recession, compared with the potential impact from the current economic strains caused by the pandemic, and his resultant desire that SAD 75 tighten its budget for next year.

“If this turns out to be as bad of a shortfall in revenues as anticipated, we should probably be looking at figuring out how to reduce our expenses by about $2.6 million,” Lusk said. “I can like the students, I can like the faculty, I can like the teachers. And I can also like the idea that if we keep our expenses lower, there are fewer people who will have to be laid off, which I think is going to become a very unfortunate outcome.”

Chief among the $3.9 million spending increase is a $3.1 million (7.5%) rise in debt service. Of the $6.4 million in total debt service, $4.5 million comprises principal and interest payments for the new Mt. Ararat High School. Next year marks SAD 75’s first principal payment on the school, due to open this fall.

Along with state aid, spending is also offset by $1.1 million in fund balance carryover, up 175%, aimed to help mitigate the impact on taxpayers.

The budget includes about $625,000 for all salary increases and an extra $100,000 for special education out-of-district placements. Cost decreases include a buy-out of state technology leases, saving nearly $123,000.

Additions to the budget include a $70,000 allowance to create remediation programs for students resulting from the closure of schools in March due to the pandemic.

SAD 75 residents will vote on the budget a final time at polling places across the district July 14.

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