ELLSWORTH — What is the right size for the School Board? Vice Chairwoman Abigail Miller spoke to councilors on Aug. 16 seeking advice on how to increase the board from five members to seven.
The School Board had approved on Aug. 12 talking to councilors as a first step in discussing the change in size. Miller raised the idea because of the heavy workload required of board members and the opportunity to add new voices. Like councilors, School Board members are paid a yearly $2,000 stipend for their service. There are seven councilors.
“There may be momentum in the community as well,” Council Chairman Dale Hamilton said of the proposal to grow the School Board.
The change would require an amendment to the City Charter, Hamilton said, which first calls for a public hearing and voter approval. The Nov. 2 general election does not provide enough time, so if the School Board does move ahead, a special election could be called, or the vote could be held in the June 2022 primary election.
“There’s no way we’re going to meet [the] November [deadline],” Hamilton said. Miller’s concern was also that of timing, so open seats would be on the ballot every year. Like councilors, School Board members serve three-year terms.
Councilors were not as open to the School Board’s proposal for the nearly $700,000 in additional state subsidy awarded after the 2021-22 school budget had received board, council and voter approval. The board had agreed earlier to discuss with the council a plan for using those unbudgeted funds.
The additional state subsidy was awarded when legislators approved increasing state educational funding to 55 percent.
The School Board proposed to councilors that $200,000 be used to offset taxes for this fiscal year and about $127,000 for a new Hancock County Technical Center boiler and to increase the high school health teacher position from part-time to full-time. The remainder —over $350,000 — would be placed in a tax stabilization account, to reduce the tax burden over time rather than all at once.
The only purpose the account could be used for is to reduce the school budget, Superintendent Dan Higgins said.
Some councilors thought the entire $696,000 should go straight to the city to offset taxes.
“The school budget was approved by taxpayers and the City Council as it was,” Councilor Marc Blanchette said, so now that the state has “ponied up” more dollars, they should be reimbursed to the taxpayer.
Higgins said the plan came out of discussions with the School Board Finance Committee, consisting of himself, School Board members Paul Markosian and Muneer Hasham, and School Department Business Manager Carolyn Heller. But Blanchette called the tax stabilization account a “slush fund” and that the plan used “superintendent math.”
The School Board has full authority on how to spend the extra funds, based on the school budget validation vote in June, and saw the tax stabilization account as a way to keep the local contribution to education stable in the near future, Markosian pointed out.
“The School Board has been very mindful since we withdrew from RSU 24,” he told councilors, pointing to low annual budget increases. “We did feel this money belongs to the citizens of Ellsworth, and we wanted to find a responsible way to return it to them.”
Blanchette did not agree.
“That money was given to the taxpayers,” he said. “It wasn’t given to the school to sock away someplace and allegedly give back to the taxpayer in little bits and pieces.”
Councilor Michelle Kaplan pointed to the annual school budget increase: “It’s always going up and up and up. When does the taxpayer get a break? When? Do you have an answer for me? When?”
Hamilton noted that “city versus school” is not a great direction to head as a city.
“Ultimately, the city side, the council, makes the decisions ultimately about the budget,” he said. “If the council wants to reject any budget put forward, it gets rejected. And that’s not a place I want us to get to.”
Higgins told councilors the School Board and Finance Committee will further discuss the proposal based on the council’s feedback. And after the meeting, he noted, “We welcomed the feedback we received from the council, and we’ll use that the next time we bring the board and finance committee together. It gives the members of the board additional information to consider.”