2016-03-31 / Front Page

Numbers come in slightly under

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD -— A budget being proposed by the school committee would decrease the local tax burden by $113,000, or a half percent on the mil rate, from last year’s local allocation. Superintendent Jeremy Ray presented the budget proposal at a special city council workshop March 24.

Ray said the $35 million budget includes 4.5 additional teaching positions, $200,000 for improvements at Biddeford Regional Center of Technology, $300,000 for a new Tiger Center building for grades five to eight, special education students and a $32,000 building study for John F. Kennedy Memorial School.

“As you see here in the budget, we took steps to try and address some one-time capital costs,” Ray told the council. “We believe we can do this without increasing the local tax allocation from last year ... You made a good step last year when you put money into the Center of Technology and I hope you continue to do that, because you get that back.”

Ray said investments upfront for the center are reimbursed by the state two years later at a rate of 101.6 percent, paid through the Essential Programs and Services funding formula.

Ray said the center could use an upgrade to keep up with modern technology.

“The Center of Technology is a pretty good building, but if you look at the shops, they need some help. They’re not set up for the technologies of today. Look at the auto body shop – it’s small, you can’t put more than five or six cars in there.”

Ray said he has worked to stabilize the budgets of the schools from year to year to avoid “ups and downs.”

“When it’s all said and done, even though expenditures have increased by 3 percent, when you factor in revenue, it’s down $112,000 for the taxpayers,” Ray said of the budget proposal. “We’re able to build a building, take care of maintenance, add teachers and still reduce taxes.”

Ray said carryover from last year’s budget and a reduction in health care costs helped keep the schools from needing to raise their portion of the mil rate.

Carryover from the 2014-2015 budget was $879,000, which can be used toward the 2016-2017 budget. Additionally, said Ray, the Legislature last year allocated an additional $579,000 to Biddeford schools after voters had already approved a budget. That amount can also now be used in the 2016-2017 budget.

Ray said the $879,000 in carryover from the 2014-2015 budget wasn’t applied toward the 2015-2016 budget, because the exact amount of carryover isn’t known until audits are completed in October or November, and the district would have guessed what the carryover would be during last year’s budget development, in order to include it as revenue in this year’s budget.

“That’s the way we do it here – we let a budget close and go through an auditing year,” Ray said. “I’m not a believer in anticipating (carryover). It gets you in a mess if you’re wrong. It’s better to wait and get the numbers right.”

Ray said health insurance costs in the schools will be $97,000 less than last year because of changes negotiated with the teachers union.

“We have a good working relationship with the union and they put kids first,” Ray said. “In some places, people are paying a lower percentage based on the coverage they have; in other areas based on more coverage, they’re paying a higher percentage. Anyone with spouses who can receive coverage through other employers must take it. It really put us in a great place and we’re thankful (to the union) for that.”

At-large City Councilor Marc Lessard asked Ray if he could project budgets two or three years ahead, to help the city council plan the city side of the budget.

“It’s a matter of creating a gap of what we believe this line is going to be, to the best of our knowledge,” Lessard said. “On the low side, it will track here, the high side will track here. Help us understand, as we’re putting capital to use, and figuring out what we’re going to do in the city side.”

Ray said he was “clearly nervous” about making projections more than a year ahead.

“With schools, it’s a little tougher because of the variables involved from year to year,” Ray said. “When I figure out valuations and anticipate, I would say that when I started guessing last year, I was only off by $50,000.”

Ray said the student count in October was 2,417, but since then, enrollment has increased by 43 students, with 33 additional English-language learners.

The new positions include a half-time special education teacher, half-time elementary ELL teacher, half-time plumbing teacher, half-time high school education tech, a computer programming teacher, two Science, Technology, Engineering and Math teachers at Biddeford Middle School and a STEM ed tech at Biddeford Primary School. Salaries will increase a total of $178,000.

Ray said the district wants to establish a STEM Academy for grades five to eight, which could then lead into a STEM program at the high school.

“People say, ‘Why wouldn’t you do that at the high school first?’” Ray said. “A lot of research said kids start to lose desire for science and technology if they’re not exposed to it at an earlier timeframe.”

The middle school STEM academy would have a designated team of three instructors, but a STEM program at the high school wouldn’t require additional teachers, he said.

“A lot of the work at the high school can be done by shifting the curriculum a little bit,” Ray said.

Ray said the district expects 50 to 60 middle school students to participate in the program next year.

“A number of parents are very excited about the possibility of their students being involved in a program like this,” he said.

Ward 5 City Councilor Bob Mills asked if other communities were instituting middle school STEM programs.

“I believe we’re the first middle school program at this level in York or Cumberland counties,” Ray said. “They would have an opportunity to earn college credit in the high school years and a possibility of having STEMendorsed high school diplomas.”

The plumbing teacher, Ray said, is being funded by a grant, but Lessard expressed concern about grant-funded positions that eventually get absorbed into the city’s budget.

“Income is, in any business – those can fluctuate a little more than expenditures,” Lessard said. “So when you have an additional position funded by a grant or federal subsidy or something, the question becomes, when you reach the third or fourth year and the grant falls off, you have to pick up (the costs).”

Ray said out of the budget’s overall 3 percent increase, $700,000 is for one-time costs.

“This is the first time I’ve come to you guys asking for teaching positions,” he added.

For the John F. Kennedy Memorial School, Ray said the study will help identify the costs for several options, including renovating the school, building a new school or adding on to the current school, or changing the configuration of the schools.

Ray said if the school were closed and other schools reconfigured, it would still require additions to be built at the other schools.

“They’re just not big enough to hold the 200-plus kids at JFK School,” he said.

The study, he added, would help the community understand all the options and costs associated with them. Any changes to John F. Kennedy Memorial School would be at least several years away from being implemented, he said.

The Tiger Center for special needs students in grades five to eight would be built between the city’s middle and primary schools. Current plans are for a 30-by-80- foot structure with an open space, several classrooms, independent learning spaces and an attached garage.

Ray said the number of students who would participate in the program would depend on how many students are recommended ot go there by their Individualized Education Program teams. Initially, he said, the program would likely start out with seven to 10 students.

Ray said the location for the new center would keep costs down because lines for sewer, electricity and natural gas already exist at the site.

Mills asked why Center of Technology students couldn’t build the new Tiger Center, and Ray said the structure may not exactly fit into the curriculum for Center of Technology students, but also, the students aren’t equipped to be able to build it in the short timeframe needed to get the program running at the beginning of next year.

Ray said it is unlikely the Tiger Center program would be built and ready by September, even with professional contractors building it.

“We would probably have to continue with existing services and transition into it in October,” he said. “We want to move quickly, but the houses (Center of Technology students) are working on are pretty successful. A lot of time people look at the Center of Technology and say, ‘Can you do this?’ It’s important to give them projects that meet their curriculum.”

Ray said he believes the school budgets are stabilizing within the taxpayers’ means.

“We had a good year. I feel confident that this won’t be one of those down years and then followed by a huge increase,” he said. “Our goal is, we fought with some of the toughest budget years and our goal was to stabilize. I think that we’ve done that.

“We’ve taken every option from shared services to getting funds from Medicaid to using funds wisely.”

Ray said he wants to take the opportunity to improve the Center of Technology while other costs are down and revenues up, to avoid hampering future budgets.

“The building has great need, we have to take care of that,” he said. “We don’t want to kick the can down the road.”

After the budget is approved by a second reading of the school committee, it will then be forwarded to the city council for approval. The council cannot amend the lines of the budget, and only approves the total budget amount for the school budget. Once approved by the council, the budget then goes on a referendum ballot for approval by the voters.

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