ELLSWORTH — The second time was the charm for the Ellsworth School Department’s fiscal year 2023 budget.
The revised document received council approval during a special session Monday, a week after the original budget was shot down by a single nay vote due to an unusual set of circumstances. But even though the full council was present to vote on the budget this time around, the proceedings were not free of controversy.
Superintendent Katrina Kane presented the council with a reduced budget that contained a cut to custodial supplies totaling $7,274.68. The increase in local appropriations to support the $25 million budget now stood at $147,860 as opposed to the original increase of $155,105. This represents an increase of 1.30 percent over last year’s budget as opposed to the original requested increase of 1.36 percent.
“We only cut supplies, which were additional pieces that we left in the budget in case there were additional expectations in terms of cleaning for COVID, so we’re hoping that those pieces will not be needed going forward,” Kane explained. “The area we cut was the decision of the full board on what could be cut and should be cut based on the amount of time already spent on the budget and looking at the needs of the students in the system.”
The School Board also approved language in the budget that would allow any excess funds received from the state to go to the city instead of the School Department, which was another sticking point at last week’s council meeting.
Councilor Michelle Kaplan, who voted down the budget last week in the hopes that it would return with a much lower request from the taxpayers, was unhappy with the revision.
“I was really hoping we would be able to bring this number down further,” she said.
The public comment period that followed the budget presentation became an inflection point for the evening. Allegations of impropriety made by John Linnehan resulted in a heated discussion with council Chairman Dale Hamilton.
Linnehan, who is currently running to represent District 13 as a state representative and is a fixture at City Council meetings, stepped to the podium to draw attention to what he referred to as “lawlessness regarding conflict of interest” among council members. Previously, Linnehan alleged that Councilor Casey Hanson had acted inappropriately by not recusing herself from the vote on the rainbow crosswalk. He was now requesting that Hamilton, who has disclosed the fact that his wife works in the school system and explained why he chose not to recuse himself at every meeting involving the school budget, recuse himself from the vote.
“Since the school budget includes raising salaries, the councilors obviously profit from approving the budget, since their household income benefits from the salary increase,” Linnehan stated. “As townsfolk, we should not have to take matters into our own hands by hiring attorneys and point the subject matter out after the fact.”
“Do you know how the salaries of teachers are conducted, do you know the process?” Hamilton asked of Linnehan.
“I do not,” Linnehan replied.
“So, it probably would be good to gather some facts before you make the kind of accusations that you’re making,” Hamilton replied. “So let me educate you a little bit about how salaries are generated for contracted personnel in the school. That is done through a union negotiation. The unions negotiate the salaries and the salary structures. That is done with the participation of the union and the School Board. The council has no input into that. And ultimately then the rates are set, the pay is set for that. So, approving this budget has absolutely zero influence over what teachers get paid, including my wife.”
The discussion continued until Hamilton gaveled Linnehan down after Linnehan asked whether Hamilton’s wife received an increase in pay.
“I’m not going to debate my wife’s salary with you,” Hamilton said. “If you want to come up and talk, you can talk, but right now you’re not talking, you’re arguing.”
Hamilton said later in the discussion that he believed the “individuals” making these accusations were politically motivated, looking to have individuals step out of the budget process so that the budget wouldn’t pass. He and Linnehan would later apologize to each other once the initial tension had died down.
The budget passed with Kaplan representing the lone nay vote on three of the eight separate sections. Councilor Steve O’Halloran abstained from all votes once again, including the vote to authorize a special election to be held on July 12 for the public to vote on the school budget. The council also authorized a continuing resolution allowing the School Department to operate under last year’s budget until a new budget is approved.