HARTLAND — Members of the state Board of Education couldn’t have avoided the subject of aging school buildings and how to pay for new ones if they wanted to Wednesday morning in Hartland.
Trying to conduct a meeting in the gymnasium pit of the antiquated Hartland Junior High School, board members and the small audience struggled to be heard amid the din of a regular school day going on above their heads.
Acoustics were nonexistent in the brick-lined gymnasium built in 1856. The voices of Wednesday’s participants were often lost to the rafters as the clatter of school desks could be heard on the floor overhead. Teachers were heard shushing children as they changed classes with a predictable clamor heightened by footsteps on aging wooden floors and stairs.
In the midst of it all, local legislators, school administrators and two town managers attempted to make a case to support increased funding for rural schools in the name of equitable education and reducing the burden on local taxpayers.
“We need to be sure rural and northern Maine is getting their fair share,” said Rep. Jim Tobin, R-Dexter, urging board members to compare the educational opportunities offered at Dexter High School to high schools in southern Maine.
For SAD 48, the plea was more specific.
With the construction of two new middle schools planned, St. Albans Town Manager Larry Post and Newport Town Manager Jim Ricker asked the board to consider the $3 million shortfall in the funding package.
“Newport’s share of the new schools [and a recent bond issue] will add $30,000 a year to our school assessment,” Ricker said. “Looking at the total tax picture, I have to tell people it will cost between $60 to $110 per taxpayer to catch up with [funding for] the recent bond issue and the new schools.”
Ricker also stressed more than half of Newport’s taxpayers are senior citizens on fixed income who can ill afford that type of tax increase.
Earlier this year, Education Commissioner J. Duke Albanese told SAD 48 officials $10.9 million in state subsidy would be available to build the district’s new middle school or schools.
The number of schools was left up to the district.
School district officials have vowed to build two schools with the available money to address school crowding, antiquated buildings, technology and minimize travel within the large district. As planning has continued, district officials determined the projects would cost more than originally anticipated. Town officials were looking to the state board to alleviate the added expense for their taxpayers.
The Hartland Junior High School, where the state board held its morning meeting, is one of the schools to be replaced by the new construction.
“We already have more students than your [state] projections for the future,” Post said, citing the area’s close proximity to Interstate 95 and rural lifestyle as advantages attracting new residents. “We’re still growing. We’re funding $34 million high schools in southern Maine. All we’re asking for is $14 million for two [middle] schools here.”
Post cited budget figures from 1994 and 1998 to demonstrate how reduced state school funding has affected taxpayers in his town. Between the two years, the municipal budget rose 9 percent, but the school budget increased 17 percent, he said. In the same time period, the local school assessment for St. Albans increased 103 percent, he said. While the mill rate to support schools rose $6 per $1,000 of property valuation in four years, St. Albans only raised three mills. The balance to fund the town’s share of the school budget came from reduced municipal services, he said.
Both managers were assured the state board tries to individualize each construction project and has “great sensitivity” to rising construction costs.
“I expect there will be a lot of debate about the [state] surplus when the Legislature meets,” Albanese told the small gathering.
The board also was asked to consider increased funding for school buses or to change the policy to allow larger districts to buy more than one a year; altering teacher certification requirements to attract more people to the profession to address a shortage of teachers; to pay for teacher fingerprinting; and to take a role in setting policy for Internet use in the schools.