City Council reviews school budget

ELLSWORTH — City councilors continued with the budgeting process last Thursday evening, listening as Ellsworth School Department Superintendent Dan Higgins laid out plans for the $23-million budget approved by the School Board in late April.

“To support a budget at this level, citizens would be asked to contribute $11,660,000 to fund public education in Ellsworth,” said Higgins, “which is a decrease of $3,300 or 0.03 percent from last year’s contribution.”

The department expects to receive the full subsidy from the state for the rest of the fiscal school year, said Higgins, and also has saved some money by closing schools to classroom instruction by spending less on things such as unfilled positions, activities and supplies.

“We’re projecting to have a healthy balance of funds from the current year budget to offset expenditures,” said Higgins.

The department also plans to put money into undesignated fund balances and an “education reserve account,” he added, “that would be available for subsequent year funding challenges or unanticipated shortfalls that may occur in the next year.”

With some money unspent because of the shutdown, the city projects a total fund balance of $2.87 million, said Higgins, $228,897 of which is dedicated specifically to career and technical education (CTE). The rest — $2.65 million — is undesignated.

“We’re anticipating about $1.75 million to be left over from this year alone,” said Higgins. “That’s more than we usually have,” because of the shutdown.

The department is proposing that it draw $1.27 million from the undesignated fund balances to offset expenditures for the fiscal year 2021 budget, said Higgins.

“In part, this allows us to bring in a budget that does not increase the local appropriation and allows us to at least maintain the current level of services,” he said. “We’ve also opted to apply out of the CTE fund balance — $70,803 — to offset expenditures there.”

Officials also are looking into placing money into an education reserve account in case the state cuts educational subsidies or there are other shortfalls.

“Which would leave us with approximately a balance of $1.13 million as an undesignated fund balance,” said Higgins, “which is similar to where we started the FY20 year.”

The city was projecting to get more in state subsidies this year, in part because Governor Janet Mills increased state funding for education by $85 million between this year and next. If no changes are made on the state side, it will decrease the amount the city is required to raise to receive full subsidy by $7,739 and increase the amount the department gets from the state by $135,589. Hancock County Technical Center (HCTC) also will get more in state funding, a total of $1.655 million, up $158,371 from this year.

The budget for HCTC is down 8.2 percent, said Higgins. An academic teaching position has been eliminated from the program in part because enrollment is projected to decrease, as Narraguagus Junior/Senior High School is starting its own vocational program.

“Students that we have traditionally had coming from there will no longer be coming,” said Higgins, “with a few exceptions.”

But officials are proposing to keep plans for a new hospitality and tourism program at HCTC, in part because cutting it would actually result in lost state funding “and that would end up being a burden on our taxpayers,” said Higgins.

There is also federal grant money supporting the program, said Higgins, “so the cost of that program is less than the amount of money we’re being given to support it.”

The planned cybersecurity program, however, will not go forward.

“The cost to put that program in place far exceeded the amount of money we received from the Department of Education,” Higgins said.

There are increases in the expense lines of some departments, Higgins said. The “primary drivers are wages and insurance.” Health insurance premiums will increase for the first time in three years.

“This year, we’re seeing an increase of 5.81 percent in health insurance premiums,” Higgins said. It has also been a negotiating year for the teachers and ed tech unions.

“We’re bound by a couple of things,” said Higgins. “One, ensuring that we meet the state law mandating teachers’ salaries be increased to a starting minimum of $40,000 by the 2022-2023 school year, ensuring that we’re abiding by minimum wage laws and also remaining competitive not only with neighboring districts but also other retail and employment opportunities in the community.” The department had several teaching and ed tech positions that went unfilled this year, he added.

Councilors had few questions about the budget, although Councilor Michelle Kaplan wondered why the school has to pay for lodging and meals for a site visitor from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), a nonprofit accreditation agency.

“I don’t get it,” said Kaplan. “It’s their job. The taxpayer shouldn’t be forced to do that.”

Higgins said he didn’t disagree, but that “It’s a requirement of being part of that and the accreditation goes a long way with schools.” The visit happens once every 10 years, although the process of preparing for it “is a multiyear process,” said Higgins.

There is also the open question of what the start of the next school year will look like, including whether schools will need to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) or materials for remote learning.

The School Department is tracking all COVID-19-related expenses, said Higgins, and the Maine Department of Education is working on “a statewide solution to support school districts rather than letting us fend for ourselves,” particularly in the tight market for PPE.

“We need to be responsive but also proactive,” Higgins said.

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 Bar Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]