2016-04-14 / Front Page

Saco school budget would add 53 cents to mil rate

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

SACO – A proposed school budget of $34,195,769 plus $114,803 for adult education has got some city councilors concerned about its impact on the mil rate, which would increase property taxes 53 cents per $1,000 of valuation. The proposal represents a nearly $1.3 million increase on the tax levy, and a 0.78 percent increase from last year’s overall school budget.

Superintendent Dominic DePatsy said moving targets from the Legislature on Saco’s allocation of Essential Programs and Services funds will make the budget’s impact uncertain.

“We lost $1.3 million from the state. Then we got $248,000 back,” DePatsy said. “Last week I heard that the governor might have to reallocate some school funding money toward the Madison and Skowhegan mills.”

DePatsy said seven positions have been eliminated by attrition – not filling the positions of retirees – and class size will be increased slightly as a result.

At a city council workshop on Monday, April 11, Mayor Roland Michaud expressed his frustration with the

Legislature for not supplementing educational costs at 55 percent as required by L.D. 1, a referendum that was passed by voters in the 2003 election. Michaud said the state is only funding 39 percent of the costs of education.

“Never forget that the major players of educational costs involve players to the north,” Michaud said. “When taxpayers come to say, ‘Why do taxes have to go up?’, turn to our friends in the north and say, ‘Why are we not getting what we’re supposed to be from 12 years ago?’”

DePatsy said the schools are looking to separate their information technology services from the city and do their own data management. The cost to the schools of managing the information would be the same as the cost was this year. The city and schools shared the services this year and DePatsy said errors in data entry cost the schools nearly $500,000 in lost revenue from the state because the experience level of the district’s teachers were not accurately reflected.

The Maine Department of Education mandated last year that schools must transfer to a new data management system.

Jason DiDonato, the school’s finance director, said the switch from the MEDMS management system to NEO came with little support from the state other than a onehour webinar session. When employment information was entered into the new system, a field for years of experience of employees was characterized as the number of years in the current position, when it actually should have been number of years of employment, said DiDonato. Therefore, if a teacher who had taught for 16 years had moved to a new position which they had only worked for one or two years, their true experience level was not reflected in the EPS allocation that was distributed to Saco for the 2015-2016 school year.

“The state could have hired a company to do data transfer from one system to another,” Michaud said. “The complexities of dealing with that – it’s an unfunded mandate. They chose not to (pay to convert data).”

DiDonato said other school districts likely made the same mistake but would probably not admit it. DiDonato said Cape Elizabeth lost $900,000 in this year’s budget and Portland lost $2.6 million, some of which may have also been due to misinterpretation of the data fields in the form. DiDonato said when the issue was brought to the DOE, Saco was told it was too late to recoup the lost money for this year’s budget.

”We expressed that the data was incorrect because of the work sheet that was given to us and they basically told us we have to wait until next year,” DiDonato said.

Ward 5 City Councilor Alan Minthorn said voters are not comfortable with more tax increases.

“Maybe you should postpone some of the projects you want to do for next year,” Minthorn said. “I shook a lot of hands and nobody said, ‘Raise my taxes.’”

“I know you want us to cut the budget, but if we cut any leaner, people won’t come to Saco for our schools,” DePatsy said. “If we go any deeper, it’s going to be personnel in the lower grades, middle school. We cut a lot of money without people losing their jobs. If we go any deeper, people will lose their jobs.”

When pressed by Minthorn to postpone new programs, DePatsy responded, “What do you want us to postpone? We don’t know what that means. Postpone teaching?”

DePatsy said several new curriculum programs the district wanted to pursue were not included in the budget.

“We streamlined, the board was very clear that they still wanted to keep curriculum high and also wanted a data manager, someone who would manage all our information.”

City Administrator Kevin Sutherland said the city budget and county taxes for 2016-2017 are projected to result in a .47 increase on the mil rate.

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