Draft school budget reflects growing needs

ELLSWORTH — A preliminary draft of the 2021-22 city school budget, before any adjustments or cuts, shows a $1,435,706, or 6.25 percent, increase from 2020-21. The total budget in this first draft comes in at $24,395,501 and includes $290,854 in funding for adult education.

The district approached budgeting with the understanding that teachers and students will be back in school five days a week, Superintendent Dan Higgins said.

The School Department has proposed several new positions, including a K-4 special education teacher to handle “a significant increase” in needs for that age group, a part-time nurse, a K-7 504 coordinator, one K-8 and one 9-12 math intervention teacher and 11 ed tech positions at the elementary and middle school level where, Higgins said, “the needs we see are very high.” Because of those needs, many ed techs work one-on-one with a single student. 

Based on enrollment, an additional seventh-grade teacher is requested as well as a half-time elementary-middle school music teacher. The high school seeks to change a half-time world language position to full-time and add a half-time vocal teacher.

The K-7 504 coordinator will work with students, teachers and parents on formulating plans to accommodate physical disabilities. Section 504 is a federal law designed to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities. Higgins said 10 to 12 percent of students require a 504 plan, and one 504 coordinator now serves grades 8-12. 

For special education, 10 to 13 percent of students require services, which Higgins said is typical across the state. The projected 2021-22 special education budget comes in at just under $4.5 million, a $346,465, or 8.36 percent, increase. In addition, Higgins said he would like to start a special education reserve account, to handle any future out-of-district tuition costs for students who need more services than the School Department can provide.

Regular instruction for pre-K-12 is up $596,532, or 8.94 percent, for a total of just over $7.2 million. Reasons behind the increase include contracted salary raises, projected increase in health insurance costs, expanding the preschool program and new staff positions. 

Currently, there are 68 staff and teacher positions across the district, with eight of those currently unfilled. 

Higgins also noted that the $2.66 million facilities budget projected for 2021-22, up $277,530, or 11.63 percent, will start a multiyear plan to replace the high school roof, replace the gym bleachers, which he said are old and difficult to manage, and resurface the tennis courts. This last item had been cut from the budget the last three to four years, which is true for “many items” in this first draft, he said.

Voters will be asked to approve the 2021-22 budget in a special school budget referendum vote in June, following approval by the School Board.

While the budget may pass with an increase, the portion of it supported by local revenues from property tax appears nearly 1 percent down because of an increase in projected state subsidies.

In addition, Higgins is waiting for an audit to be finalized before applying surplus funds, called “balance forward” in school budget lingo, to the 2021-22 budget. The balance forward consists of monies left over at the end of each school budget year, and a portion is typically used to offset budget costs for future years. For example, in 2020, $1.32 million was used from the balance forward toward the school budget.

“When you’re looking at a $20 million budget and there’s 2.3 percent or so left over, that’s pretty efficient budgeting,” Higgins said.

In the latest round of pandemic relief/stimulus funds, the Ellsworth School District is set to receive $2 million. But, just as with municipal pandemic funds, guidelines on their use has not been finalized beyond “to supplement, not supplant,” Higgins said. However, those funds, which may be used over a two-year period, must be used for expenses incurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.

City Council Chairman Dale Hamilton warned against adding new costs to balance a higher-than-normal revenue, noting that the relief funds are meant to “reduce the burden on the community overall. Everything relates to COVID. You start with being as creative as you can.”

He also noted that students are not going to recover in a few months from over a year of pandemic-influenced learning.

“This is a long-term prospect of bringing them back and supporting them,” Hamilton said.

Anne Berleant

Anne Berleant

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Anne Berleant covers news and features in Ellsworth, Mariaville, Otis, Amherst, Aurora, Great Pond and Osborn. When not reporting, find her hiking local trails, reading or watching professional tennis. Email her at [email protected]
Anne Berleant

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