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By Anne O’Connor

TOWNSEND — The first public draft of next year’s proposed budget shows a 3.37 percent increase for the North Middlesex Regional School District.

Selectmen, town administrators and finance committees of the three member towns were invited to Thursday’s hearing at the high school.

Priorities in the proposed $48.7 million budget include maintaining small class sizes, said Superintendent Joan Landers. The budget adopted for fiscal 2016 was $47.1 million.

Another area of concern is providing other services children need.

“We need to ensure we have enough mental-health (support) at all levels,” she said. If students need help and don’t get it, they will not be able to learn, she added.

The proposed budget includes changing four guidance/mental-health part-time positions to full-time positions. It also adds a school resource officer to the payroll.

Transportation costs are budgeted lower, said Nancy Haines, business administrator, because the district eliminated one bus route and state reimbursement increased.

Many lines in the budget are estimated, she said. Contract negotiations are not complete and other figures are not yet known.

With the currently proposed budget, Ashby’s assessment would increase $165,861 or 5.41 percent. Pepperell would increase by 8.26 percent, $1,002,280 and Townsend by $$372,940, 3.93 percent.

The difference percentages are a result of several things, Haines said.

While the school budget increased over 3 percent, state aid increased by less than 1 percent, she said. The state uses a formula to determine the foundation budget and each town’s assessment.

Representatives of all three towns weighed in on the proposed budget.

Pepperell’s assessment increased by $1 million. The town could absorb about half that amount, said Town Administrator Mark Andrews.

As the budget now stands, the town would need to cut its own services in order to fund the schools, said Selectman Melissa Tzanoudakis. “It’s not feasible to close offices,” she said.

Ashby had a $100,000 structural deficit last year and will be in the red again, said Selectman Mike McCallum. The proposed increase is “a pretty big number.”

Townsend has not closed fiscal year 2015, is flying blind through 2016 and the 2017 budget is looking pretty abstract, said Interim Town Administrator Jim Kreidler. The proposed increase is of great concern.

“I’m worried,” said Carolyn Smart, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen. “We really need to look at our sustainability.”

The proposed budget is not final.

“This is not a unique meeting,” Landers said. “Every year we have to cut back on our budget.”

“We have to give (our students) the support they need,” she said. Services funded in the town budgets like police, fire and the Department of Public Works are important.

The School Committee will approve a budget on March 7, said School Committee Chairwoman Randee Rusch. That approved budget can be reduced, but cannot be raised, so the budget usually “goes in high.”

The budget hearing provides an opportunity for the district and the towns to discuss important issues, Landers said. “This is one of my favorite meetings all year.”

Follow Anne O’Connor on Twitter and Tout @a1oconnor.