MILO — A public hearing on a $473,000 loan from the state’s school revolving renovation fund for sprinkler and elevator system upgrades at the Penquis Valley School has been scheduled for Tuesday, May 23 at 5:30 p.m. at the Marion C. Cook School in LaGrange. A vote on the loan will be decided via referendum in the SAD 41 communities of Atkinson, Brownville, LaGrange and Milo several weeks later on Tuesday, June 13.
“Our receiving the school revolving renovation fund [loan] will ultimately lead to a new sprinkler system and elevator in this complex,” Superintendent Michael Wright said during a May 3 school board meeting. He said under the program 70 percent of costs are covered by the state and “30 percent we pay back over 10 years at zero percent interest.”
SAD 41 would have a decade to cover its $141,900 share of the $473,000. “You can’t beat that,” Wright said.
He said if district residents approve the school revolving renovation fund loan next month then the paperwork would be finalized in July. “The work itself would start in the summer of 2018,” the superintendent said.
The sprinkler and elevator improvements could be part of a larger project at the Penquis Valley campus, as district officials have been examining long-term options to convert the facility into a pre-kindergarten through grade 12 complex. The estimated figure mentioned for all the upgrades is $10 million.
Wright said SAD 41 has been approved for a $2.1 million quality zone academy bond (QZAB) from the U.S. Department of Education, which also has a 0 percent interest rate with the principal to be paid back in 25 years.
The superintendent said the QZAB funds could go toward energy efficiency upgrades at Penquis Valley. He said the capital improvement committee would be meeting to make make a decision on moving forward — the deadline to do so is the end of the year. Should SAD 41 proceed then Wright said district officials would start meeting with energy firms later this year with construction planned to start in 2018.
Wright said SAD 41 has applied to the Maine school construction fund for monies to build an elementary wing at Penquis Valley. “That we won’t know about for many months,” he said, as the state looks at proposed projects from across Maine with construction beginning several years after the funding is in place.
Working with architect Stephen Blatt of Portland, a two-story addition on the Sebec River side of Penquis Valley to house all the district’s elementary pupils has been proposed. These students now attend classes at both Brownville Elementary and Milo Elementary.
In other business, Wright provided an overview of the current status of the SAD 41 budget for the 2017-18 academic year.
“Every year it seems that there are many challenges and more uncertainty from Augusta with what we’re going to receive,” Wright said.
“I think it would be unrealistic to meet the June 13 deadline for the towns,” he said, as the district budget referendum would instead be held in late June to follow a similar timeline as in past years.
“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “When you’re a district like we are without a lot of money you’re left hanging with what you’re going to do.”
He said a current figures have SAD 41 receiving a little more than $4.8 million in state allocation, about $156,000 less than for the current school year. The reduction in state funding has the most recent total budget figure down by about $161,000 to nearly $8,157,900 from the 2016-17 total of $8,319,049.
Factors identified as contributing to the funding loss in SAD 41 include Gov. Paul LePage’s 2017-18 budget reflecting major reform to essential programs and services (EPS) funding for education with 48 changes resulting in an overall state decrease in funding; student/teacher and student/ed tech ratios raised for grades 6-12 which has resulted in a loss of about $100,000 in funding; system administration funding removed from EPS monies which has resulted in a loss of about $164,600 for SAD 41; and a 21-student enrollment decline for a loss of just over $132,200 in funding.
Wright said budget expenditures would be up by approximately $386,000 and “it’s about a half million gap between last year and this year” between the increase in costs and reduction in state funding.
“There’s going to be a lot of possibilities that could happen and it’s not going to be easy,” Wright said.
He explained that SAD 41 is a high need district in terms of student support and special services, and part of the rise in budget expenditure is approximately $192,000 for ed tech staffing increases. “We have people who are doing great things and working very hard to help kids meet their challenges,” Wright said.
“What can we do as a district to get together and try to meet some of these challenges?,” the superintendent said. He said the school board would be meeting to discuss some recommendations on the budget brought forward by district officials.
“It’s a work in progress, we’re spending time every day on it and we are hoping that the picture gets clearer,” Wright said. “If we were a district with a $3 million fund balance it would be a little easier but we aren’t.”
Assistant Superintendent Meredith Higgins said one very recent adjustment is SAD 41 should be receiving an additional $44,000 in federal Title II funds. “The focus is teacher quality and professional development,” she said about the monies to be used.