Bath-area school budget prioritizes social workers, mental health

The Regional School Unit 1 budget was unveiled Monday, and officials said they hope to…

Bath-area school budget prioritizes social workers, mental health

The Regional School Unit 1 budget was unveiled Monday, and officials said they hope to prioritize social workers in the face of a “youth mental-health crisis.”

The $41.5 million budget for the 2023-24 school year is a 3.2% increase from the current year. Superintendent Patrick Manuel said the biggest drivers of the increase are utility costs and supplies. He said money for school supplies and playground equipment was cut to keep costs lower.

Manuel said the cuts were “painful” for administrators, though no staff reductions are planned.

“We’ll still be able to offer the programming that we usually do,” Manuel said.

The budget would increase the tax burden of the four RSU 1 communities by a combined 3.54%, a lower hike than surrounding districts at this point. The Brunswick School Board last week approved a budget that would increase the tax burden by 6.6%.

Broken down by community, the RSU 1 budget would increase the tax burden in Arrowsic by 12.57%, in Phippsburg by 4.41%, in Woolwich by 3.8%, and in Bath by 2.75%. Manuel said the Arrowsic portion increased the most due to higher enrollment. Manuel added the district’s total enrollment is stable at between 1,750 and 1,800 students, a key factor in keeping costs down.

The budget includes about $400,000 for four social workers who are paid for with federal American Rescue Plan funds that were distributed during the coronavirus pandemic. Those funds expire next year, and the school district Board of Directors discussed possibly moving one of those positions into the portion of the budget paid for with local money.

“The youth mental-health crisis around us is a disruption,” said board member Jamie Dorr. “We have to innovate around disruption.

“I will challenge us all to consider the whole learner and not just bits and parts … We have to change because the needs of our learners have changed.”

According to the latest Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, 36% of high school students across the state reported feeling sad or hopeless for two weeks or more in 2021, an increase from the 32% reported in 2019. The percentage of students who reported seriously considering suicide was 18.5%, up from 16.4% in 2019. The survey is conducted every two years.

Board member Jennifer Ritch-Smith suggested approaching the state Department of Health and Human Services, the state Department of Education and insurance providers for help paying for social workers.

“It’s not a small need,” Ritch-Smith said. “It’s a growing need. I want those social workers to stay in our school system. I know how important it is.”

The budget is subject to public hearings April 10 and April 24. The board will adopt a budget May 1 and it will be debated May 30 during the school district budget meeting. A voter validation vote will be held June 13.

“There’s a lot of things still in play,” board Chairperson Lou Ensel said. “This is just the beginning.”

Board members expressed trepidation about next year when the federal funds expire.

“We’re not the only ones facing the cliff next year,” Ensel said. “We have to start thinking outside the box.”

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