Harpswell will contribute $9,236,792 toward the Maine School Administrative District 75 budget for the 2022-23 school year, an increase of $511,555 or 5.86% over 2021-22.
The MSAD 75 Board of Directors approved the budget in a 13-1 vote on April 14. The budget totals $49,591,774, an increase of $2,295,366 or 4.87%.
Harpswell representative Eric Lusk cast the sole vote against the budget. “I believe we need to do a review of our head count, especially as it relates to nonteaching positions,” Lusk said.
“I think in this era of inflation, which is the highest it has been in 40-some-odd years, we owe it to the residents of the district to do everything we can to make sure we have as lean a budget as we can have,” Lusk added.
Each town’s “local assessment” — the amount the town must raise from property taxes to fund the budget — depends on a complex formula that accounts for its enrollment and ability to pay. Harpswell has the lowest enrollment in the district, at 350 students; but the highest valuation, at $2.01 billion.
That $2.01 billion valuation — an estimate of the value of all property in the town — is almost double Topsham’s $1.01 billion and several times higher than Bowdoin’s $247.27 million and Bowdoinham’s $301.18 million.
The state classifies Harpswell as a “minimum receiver,” which means the town’s ability to pay exceeds the amount it must pay under the state’s Essential Programs and Services model.
While its three counterparts in MSAD 75 will each receive millions of dollars from the state to reduce their local assessments, Harpswell will receive just $66,034. Bowdoin will receive $5,309,946; Bowdoinham $4,127,404; and Topsham $10,827,984.
As a result of all these factors, Harpswell’s $9.24 million local assessment ranks second only to Topsham’s, at $11.44 million.
Harpswell’s local assessment breaks down to more than $26,000 for each of its 350 students. The other three towns contribute less than $10,000 per student. Bowdoin pays $6,963; Bowdoinham $8,697; and Topsham $9,755.
Because enrollment and valuation shift, the towns do not see the same increases in the budget each year. While Harpswell will pay 5.86% more toward the budget this year, Bowdoin will pay 0.48% more, Bowdoinham 3.38% more and Topsham 0.91% more.
Harpswell’s increase is “primarily driven by values,” said Gwen Bedell Gadbois, a consultant who works with the district’s business office. “We know it’s not because of enrollment. It’s because of valuations.”
Despite Harpswell’s relatively hefty bill from MSAD 75, it enjoys the lowest tax rate in the district — less than half of any other town’s. Harpswell property owners pay a tax of $6.76 per $1,000 of valuation. Bowdoin pays $16.60, Bowdoinham $16.97 and Topsham $15.87.
District officials presented the budget during a forum at Harpswell Community School on March 17, although the budget grew by almost $1 million between the forum and the board’s vote on April 14.
Frank Wright, chair of the MSAD 75 Finance Committee and a Harpswell representative to the board, attributed the growth to developments in the board’s negotiations with the teachers union. The union’s contract expires at the end of the current school year. Other factors include rising energy costs.
At the Harpswell forum, interim Superintendent Bob Lucy said that the district builds its budget with three goals in mind: prioritizing and serving students, supporting the goals of the district and its schools, and being fiscally responsible to the towns.
Salaries and benefits account for about 80% of the budget, according to the presentation. The budget assumes a 4.18% increase in health insurance premiums and a 1% decrease in dental insurance.
Another factor in the budget is “a need to escalate the bus replacement program to ensure safe transportation of students,” according to the presentation. The budget includes funds to replace seven buses at a cost of $120,000 each.
Additions to the budget include a K-12 teacher of English for speakers of other languages, as well as a K-6 “tech integrator.” Each new position will cost $75,609.
The presentation included a list of 20 “requests for new resources” that the district declined for this year. The requests range from new full-time positions, including four teachers; to more hours for existing positions; to equipment, like an emergency generator.
Principals and other district leaders “put forth a list of items they would like to request to be incorporated for this fiscal year,” Bedell Gadbois said. “Unfortunately, most of those requests we were not able to incorporate.”
The district might be able to buy some of the equipment with funds in this year’s budget, she added.
Harpswell resident Susan Stemper was the only speaker during a period of public comment after the forum. Stemper advised against cuts to the draft budget.
“We get one chance, through public education, to reach kids K-12 — one chance,” Stemper said. “We screw this up by underfunding, it is the students who will pay the price the rest of their lives.”
Stemper said she had heard that district officials “will continue to sharpen the pencil on this budget, so please do not cut this too close, because it is the students who will suffer, as well as our deteriorating infrastructure.”
Stemper said that the increase in Harpswell’s assessment will place the burden on “those who can best afford it.” She added that assistance is available for any Harpswell property owner who cannot afford a tax increase.
The budget will now head to voters in a two-step approval process: a town meeting-style vote at Mt. Ararat Middle School’s Orion Performing Arts Center at 6:30 p.m. on May 19, then a budget validation referendum on June 14.
Also on June 14, voters will consider a $9 million bond for renovations at the middle school and paving at several properties, including Harpswell Community School. Of the $9 million, $7.25 million would go toward the project at the middle school, which would include the replacement of the “building envelope” and the repair of a water line.