ELLSWORTH — City School Board members unanimously approved a $23-million budget for the upcoming school year on Tuesday evening, an increase of 1.91 percent compared to last year.
Local taxpayers will be asked to raise $11,660,240 to support the School Department, down roughly $3,300 compared to this past year. The budget will be put to taxpayers for a vote during primary elections in mid-July.
“Achieving a budget with no increase in the local appropriation is not a simple task,” said Ellsworth School Superintendent Dan Higgins at a Zoom meeting on Tuesday, but “Proposing a budget with no additional budget to our taxpayers is the absolute right decision.”
Officials will defer some planned equipment purchases and maintenance projects and use money from the department’s fund balance to offset the cost of running local schools for the coming year and reduce the amount of money they’re asking taxpayers to contribute.
On the expense side, many of the increases come in the form of wages and health insurance, said Higgins, noting that the department is bound by state laws mandating an increase in base pay for teachers to $40,000 over the next three years and by minimum wage laws, as well as staying competitive with neighboring districts.
“This past school year, and this is because of lack of candidates,” said Higgins, “we had several teaching and ed tech positions that remained unfilled.”
Health insurance premiums also rose 6 percent this year, said Higgins, after staying flat for three years. Those factors helped drive an increase in the “regular instruction” expense line (which includes pre-kindergarten through 12th grade) of 3.26 percent, or $211,255.
There is also a “significant increase” in the special education side of the budget, said Higgins, of 11.44 percent, or $425,739, also due in part to wage and insurance increases, as well as funding for six new ed tech 3 positions that are required to meet identified student needs, he explained.
The budget also includes an increase in the building administration budget line, which covers the principals’ offices at both Ellsworth High School and Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School, of $81,900, or 9.6 percent, to support wages and insurances for a new principal at the kindergarten through fourth grade level. Elementary school Principal Cathy Lewis, who plans on retiring after the year, works four days per week, said Higgins, but the budget plans for the new hire to work five days.
A teaching position at Hancock County Technical Center (HCTC) in a program with low enrollment will be cut to save money, said Higgins, and the department will suspend for a year the proposed cyber security program and the renovations that were planned to support it.
The addition of a hospitality program at HCTC will go forward, solely because the city is receiving money from the state to support the budget. That funding would be reduced if the department reduced the program and would result in an increase in the amount local taxpayers would be asked to raise. Overall, expenses at HCTC are down 8.27 percent in the proposed budget, or $155,552, said Higgins.
“There have been disappointments,” said board member Paul Markosian. “But given the circumstances we’re in, it’s a hard reality that we have to swallow and hopefully next year we’ll be in a better place.”
On the revenue side, the department gets money from a variety of sources, including a subsidy from the state, local property taxes and tuition revenues from residents who pay to send their children to school in Ellsworth.
The state had an increase of $85 million in funding for the upcoming school year, said Higgins, which has helped bring down the amount taxpayers will need to raise. The department also plans to use $1.27 million of the fund balance, an increase of $420,000 compared to last year, to help offset expenditures.
Closing the schools to in-person instruction has helped save some money on electricity and heating, as well as transportation costs, said Higgins, some of which will be added to the fund balance in anticipation of possible cuts in state and local funding for schools in the coming years.
“We’re looking at a budget that is as slimmed down as it possibly could be to be as considerate as we possibly could be to, you know, taking funds from our taxpayers,” said board member Abigail Miller.
“But things don’t get cheaper,” she added. “We’re making do with the same money and we’re going to need to make that money go farther because things are going to cost more money.”