ELLSWORTH — After some hesitation and more than an hour of discussion, city councilors unanimously approved a $22.60-million school budget on Monday evening, roughly $436,000 less than the School Department had initially asked for.
“I don’t believe the taxpayers can afford this budget,” said Councilor Gary Fortier.
“You’re telling me you need this to run your schools and I believe you,” he continued, addressing School Superintendent Dan Higgins. “But everybody’s got to bleed a little.”
With the cut, taxpayers will be asked to come up with $11,675,247 to fund city schools, a 3 percent increase in the local appropriation over last year and a 5.78 percent increase in the expense budget overall.
The bulk of that — $8.689 million, or 74 percent — is money that the city is required to spend on essential services in order to receive state funding.
The rest, an additional $2.521 million (plus other required expenditures), is what School Department officials have determined, as Higgins told councilors, “is absolutely needed” to address anticipated staffing needs and maintenance costs, among other items.
“Our community is growing,” Higgins said. “We enrolled over 50 students more this school year than we anticipated a year ago at this time. We’ve seen significant increases in housing in the community.
“We’re seeing attractiveness in our school system; people who are moving here for opportunities are also moving here to have children attend our schools.”
The proposal includes nearly 20 new staff members from maintenance workers to teachers, including several new teachers at the high school as well as information technology staff and a new bus driver.
There is also funding for a behavioral interventionist and several education technicians in special education, as well as at the high school, to help deal with increased mental health and behavioral needs, Higgins said.
Several maintenance items are also on the list, projects Higgins told councilors could not be put off any longer, such as refinishing the gym floor and a new roof at the Hancock County Technical Center.
While City Council approval is required for the overall figures, the council does not have line-item authority to tell the department how to spend its money. And overall figures could change depending on what the state Legislature decides on for school funding in its biennial budget, which is in talks right now.
Local voters also will have to approve the budget before it is enacted. It is slated for a vote on June 11.
Even though they can’t demand the department add or remove budget items, councilors did propose on Monday that the city, rather than the School Department, pick up the tab for a proposed $150,000 feasibility study that would look at repairing or replacing Hancock County Technical Center.
The money, said City Manager David Cole, could come from the city’s Tax Increment Financing reserves, rather than having it come directly from taxpayers via the school budget.
Councilors debated at length on Monday where the money for certain items should come from. Councilor Dale Hamilton asked why the school department doesn’t use more of its projected $850,000 fund balance (reserve funds generally designed to cover unexpected shortfalls or unanticipated expenditures) to pay for some maintenance costs and other needs.
“Why not take advantage of the funds that exist?” Hamilton asked.
Higgins replied that the school has drawn on the reserves to fund projects over the years.
“We have been working with our fund balance over the last five years trying to reduce it down to be approximately 3 percent of our gross budget, which is where state requirements are,” Higgins said.
“One of the challenges behind that is if you apply more to your budget and reduce that fund balance too quickly, you’re going to run into a year subsequent to that where you’re either going to have to reduce your budget significantly or experience a significant tax increase.”
Higgins added: “You don’t want to have the local impact of the Ellsworth School Department budget fluctuate too much.”
Councilor Dawn Hudson interpreted what Higgins had said.
“What he means is if for four years in a row he takes a chunk of that and puts it into the budget, then the fifth year when he doesn’t have that to do it anymore, it looks like all of a sudden the school’s spending more money than they’re spending. And the percent goes up and everybody’s looking to the school like, why is there this huge increase this year?”
Hudson continued: “It gives a false sense of normalcy if you take too much away every year and then the year that you can’t do it, it looks like there’s a spike in the cost of education.”
On Monday, Hudson called for more regular meetings between School Department officials and councilors.
“With the school, we only meet when it’s budget time,” Hudson said. “I think that it would be easier for the council to be able to understand and help you move forward with this with a stronger, more consistent relationship … So that it’s not sticker shock and there is buy-in.”
Despite the sticker shock, Hudson said she supports adequately funding the schools.
“At some point we have to stop kicking all of their needs and issues down the road and put some money into that program as well,” Hudson said.
“They’re our kids, they’re our future employees. This is a huge part of what we are as a community. It will attract or detract people from coming here. The schools have to be the jewel in our crown.”