City Council OKs $21-million for city schools

ELLSWORTH — The City Council on Monday unanimously approved the Ellsworth School Department’s $21.37-million budget for the 2018-19 school year.

The overall budget, including adult education, is up 3.43 percent over this year’s, or $708,099. Taxpayers in Ellsworth will be asked for 2.45 percent more than in 2017, or $272,711, to fund the local share of the budget, which is $11,393,487.

“You’ve pared the budget down quite a bit from where we’ve started,” said Councilor Steve Beathem, “but that’s still a significant amount of money,” adding “I’m just wondering how far the taxpayer is going to allow things to go before they say no to something.”

Superintendent Dan Higgins told councilors that payroll and expected enrollment increases make up much of the costs. He said School Board members had worked hard to come up with something fiscally responsible.

“What we’re talking about is a little over a 3 percent increase in the overall budget,” said Higgins, adding that this is “not a significant increase when you look at school budgets.”

The largest increases came in regular instruction (28.30 percent), special education instruction (16.79 percent), debt service (12.57 percent) and facilities (11.11 percent).

“I think they’ve got a good budget,” said Councilor Gary Fortier, who asked that any additional amount received from the state be given to the city to reduce property taxes.

Councilor Bob Crosthwaite asked Higgins to “help me explain to people why the budget numbers keep going up.”

“People just don’t understand” the extra expenditures when there is an approximately $900,000 fund balance, Crosthwaite said.

Higgins said the board is working to bring the fund balance down to $600,000, or 3 percent of the gross budget, which is recommended.

“One of our big problems,” said Crosthwaite, “is messaging.”

Higgins urged taxpayers to call him and pointed to City Council videos on YouTube, budget workshops and reporting in The American as some of the ways residents can learn more about the budget.

The budget recommends the addition of 15 full-time equivalent positions, including in the areas of Section 504 (programs for students with certain disabilities), summer programs to help students, athletic trainer services, a licensed clinical social worker, information technology staff and data staff positions, among others. Five of the positions are required by federal or state law.

A significant amount of money has been devoted to moving toward a proficiency-based system, which was mandated by the state Legislature in 2012. Criticism of the program, which requires students to obtain a standard of proficiency in eight subject areas, has resulted in bills to abolish or amend the standards.

Councilor Dale Hamilton wondered if “We’re not going to see a whole new curriculum thrown in with new costs and all the money that’s been sunk into this thrown out the window.”

Higgins said the department intends to “move forward with what we’re working on” but said a change at the state level could be “disastrous.”

“When you look at the model in and of itself,” said Higgins, “it’s an improvement over the model that most of us went to school with.”

The state Legislature failed to come to a consensus on LD 1869, a version of the yearly bill releasing funding for state schools. The money, around $1 billion, was appropriated last year but must be released by the Legislature.

“There is a legislative correction to ensure funding will flow,” Higgins said. “I believe it’s in the Governor’s hands.”

The budget will go to voters for a referendum on June 12.

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Kate covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. She lives in Southwest Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]

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