TRENTON — Some residents and town officials here think the town is spending more on education than it needs to, and they are looking for ways to reduce the cost, including, perhaps, withdrawing from the Mount Desert Island Regional School System, or AOS 91.
(In Maine Department of Education parlance, AOS stands for alternative organization structure.)
The Board of Selectmen has created a committee to “explore options for the town (regarding) the relationship with the AOS and decreasing the tax burden for education on Trenton property owners.”
The selectmen voted 4-1 at their July 30 meeting in favor of a motion by Mark Remick to form the School Evaluation Options Committee to assess Trenton Elementary School’s “financial impact on the taxpayers of the town” and its projected impact over the next seven years. Rachel Nobel cast the lone dissenting vote.
Remick’s motion also called for the committee to “seek a comparison of the current arrangement between the town and the AOS, options available within the AOS, to other possible arrangements which would serve the students and the taxpayers of our community.”
Remick told the Islander on Tuesday, “We just need an honest assessment of whether we are in the right place [as an AOS member], and we probably are. There probably is not a better option, but let’s find out.”
The AOS was created by an act of the Legislature in 2008. According to that law, withdrawal from the school system would have to be initiated by a vote of the Trenton School Committee and then approved by a majority of the town’s voters.
Remick said there are a number of questions he would like the new committee to consider.
“For example, is there more efficiency that could be gained within the structure we’re in, such as sharing special ed services or food services or trash contracts? What else could be found and worked out to help save the taxpayers money and still provide the quality services that we need?”
AOS Superintendent Marc Gousse has said one of his priorities is finding ways for the schools to work together to operate more efficiently, such as sharing equipment that is used only occasionally, rather than each school buying its own, and perhaps sharing some custodial personnel.
A committee of the school system board earlier this summer recommended hiring a coordinator for transportation, maintenance and custodial services.
“We were looking at what is working well right now and what we can do better,” committee Chairman Jim Sawyer said.
Another school board committee recommended creating the position of food services coordinator. The job could include bulk purchasing for the AOS schools.
Remick said he doesn’t think the School Evaluation Options Committee will be looking to save money on teachers’ salaries and benefits, noting that the teachers work under a negotiated three-year contract.
“So, there are not an awful lot of things that can be done,” he said. “And quite frankly, the teachers are probably not recognized and rewarded the way they should be. That’s a tough job.”
Remick said he just wants the committee to find out if the town is providing services “in the most efficient manner to the kids we serve and the community that pays the bills.”
The School Evaluation Options Committee held an informal meeting Sept. 10. It is scheduled to hold work sessions every two weeks starting Sept. 24 at 6 p.m. at the Trenton town office.
Superintendent Gousse said he was disappointed that the selectmen did not discuss their concerns about costs with school officials rather than forming the new committee without notice.
“No one in the community knew this was coming; it wasn’t even on the agenda,” he said.
“Maybe they’re out there, but I have not heard any parents or [school] staff or community members say they want to see this investigated. I don’t know where this has come from.”
The selectmen have appointed six members to the School Evaluation Options Committee: Selectman John Bennett, former selectmen Sue Starr and Mike Hodgkins, Ron Marshall, Susan Sargent and Stephanie Waite.
The selectmen said they would like to appoint a member of the School Committee, as well, and they asked the School Committee to nominate two candidates.
“If the School Committee does that, it’s de facto approval of this [School Evaluation Options] committee and this process, and I can’t in good conscience recommend that the school committee do that,” Gousse said Monday. “The school administration is not at all opposed to looking at options in terms of efficiencies. We just do not agree with the method being employed here.”
Jennifer Bonilla, chairwoman of the Trenton School Committee, said “To ask me to sit on this [School Evaluation Options] committee makes me feel like you are asking me to find a better school than what we have.
“I feel like there are ulterior motives for doing this. As an elected official, my only motive is to make sure the school shines, the teachers are happy and the kids are well educated, period.”
A testy history
The Board of Selectmen and the School Committee have been at odds over the school budget for at least the past couple of years.
In 2018, the selectmen recommended that voters reject the budget the School Committee presented because they said it was too high, citing particularly the cost of health insurance for teachers and staff. But voters at town meeting approved the School Committee’s budget by a wide margin.
This spring, voters approved a $3.97 school budget that was $424,188 larger than the previous year’s budget. That increased property taxes by 11.17 percent, or about $109 per $100,000 of valuation. The tax increase would have been even larger if the school had not received a one-time “hardship” grant from the Maine Department of Education.
One factor in the big budget increase was a spike in expenditures for special education, including the placement of a special-needs child in a facility outside the school district.
Contributing to the budget squeeze, according to school officials, was the Board of Selectmen’s insistence in 2016 and 2017 on using a large percentage of the school’s unspent money to reduce the tax rate rather than carrying enough of it over in case it was needed in future years.
“It’s not uncommon and it’s certainly not a bad thing to have carry-forward in a budget,” Gousse said. “[That money] can either be used to reduce the budget for the following year, or you can take a portion of it to reduce the budget and have the rest available in successor years. The common practice is to do that.
“We asked the selectmen, ‘Please be judicious with your carry-forward and spend it down over time,’ but that was not paid attention to,” Gousse continued. “They took nearly the entire amount and applied it to reduce the budget. That put us in the position we’re in, where we have a financial challenge. That did not need to happen.”
Bonilla said she thinks a lot of people in Trenton are not yet aware that the selectmen have created the School Evaluation Options Committee.
“But I have gotten a few calls from parents who have gotten wind of it, and they are freaking out thinking the school’s going to close. I have teachers coming to me; they’re so afraid.”
Trenton Elementary Principal Mike Zboray agreed that the situation creates stress.
“Something like this affects how the teachers feel about their job, how they feel about the support they receive from, I guess you could say, the leaders in their community,” he said.
But he said teachers should remember that the town’s voters have consistently supported the school.
Bonilla said one positive effect of what she described as “the contention being created by the select board” is that teachers increasingly trust the school committee to look out for them.
“Having teachers see that their principal and their superintendent and their school board really do support them, that makes me happy,” she said.
Trenton Elementary currently has 153 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
Members of the AOS school system, in addition to Trenton, are Bar Harbor, Mount Desert, Southwest Harbor, Tremont and the three outer island towns of Cranberry Isles, Frenchboro and Swan’s Island.