Ellsworth City Hall
FILE PHOTO

School budget presented



ELLSWORTH — The budget for the Ellsworth School Department is by far the largest of any municipal department. It’s also the budget over which the City Council has the least control.

Councilors control topline spending, meaning they can increase or decrease total dollar amounts, but they can’t dictate specific line items to fund or to cut. Once the council and the School Board have come to an agreement on a budget it gets put to a vote, giving citizens of Ellsworth the final say on how the money is spent.

Katrina Kane, interim superintendent of the Ellsworth School Department (until July 1 when the word “interim” will drop from her title), kicked off the multi-step process Monday night by walking the council through the department’s $25 million budget proposal for the coming year.

“There are lots of factors around us that are making budgeting challenging,” Kane said. “But, nonetheless, we have done what we can to do our part in keeping this budget as steady as possible. The budget we have tonight to present to you has a 0.63 percent increase at just under $72,000.”

Those will not be the final numbers, though, as Kane noted that due to a clerical error Ellsworth High School Principal Dan Clifford’s position was left out of the budget. The department did not have the updated numbers at press time, but the budget voted on by the council at its meeting on May 16 will reflect the final amount.

The two things that Kane referenced that made budgeting difficult were staffing and electricity costs. For staffing, the department is looking to add two new educational technicians, or ed techs, to be shared between K-4 and 5-8 schools at Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School.

“These are ed techs who will work with students who are not special education, but they have behavioral needs such that we need somebody to be able to attend to them when they need a break so that they can come out of the regular classroom, we can meet those student’s needs, and the regular learning in the classroom can keep moving forward,” Kane explained.

She also noted that the majority of Ellsworth’s collective bargaining agreements, having been negotiated at the same time that the city withdrew from Regional School Unit 24 eight years ago, will be up for negotiation this coming year, which is something that factored into the budget.

Electricity costs were perhaps the largest issue for the department when constructing its budget.

“For electricity alone, the high school increase is $97,000 and the elementary school is $71,000, so about $168,000 of that is projected increase in electricity and I just hope we have enough in there,” said Kane said.

School Department Business Manager Carolyn Heller explained to the council that the increase in electricity costs was, surprisingly, due to inclement weather in Texas.

“You probably all recall the huge storm that happened in Texas, where people were without power and it was very, very cold,” Heller said. “Liberty Power was our provider. And they were based in Texas. And they went bankrupt. Some of their contracts were purchased by other providers … ours were not purchased. They went back to standard offer. And since January our electricity bills literally have doubled.”

“Seeing doubled electricity bills come through the mail was shocking,” echoed Kane.

Heller also mentioned that the electricity costs that they had budgeted for did reflect a projected 15 percent savings from the solar projects that came online this month.

The conversation strayed a bit from dollars and cents when Councilor Michelle Kaplan, who earlier had questioned special education spending as well as English as a Second Language (ESL) in relation to other programs such as Gifted and Talented, asked about the curriculum being taught in schools.

“There’s a lot of people that have said they have taken their students out of the Ellsworth school system because of ‘social-emotional learning,’ and that it’s a code word for critical race theory, diversity equity and inclusion, and that sex-ed is just another word for gender pedagogy and whatnot. Can you shed any light on any of that?”

“I guess what I’ll say about that,” Kane responded, “is that there was an excellent article that was in The Ellsworth American where the curriculum director and staff talked about what they do and what they don’t do and stated very clearly that we do not have a critical race theory curriculum.”

Kane also mentioned that parents can opt their child out of certain elements of the health curriculum, such as sex education, if they so desired and their child would be provided with an alternative assignment.

One final major financial concern was the school’s fund balance, or the amount of surplus they generate each year in the budget that they can roll over into the following year and apply to fill certain holes.

With the increase in energy costs, several unfilled staff positions and a few major capital projects such as a replacement of the high school track and a few additional phases of roof repair on the horizon, Council Chairman Dale Hamilton was concerned that the amount being used each year may lead to trouble in the near future.

“These costs that we’re seeing are likely not to decrease in future years,” Hamilton said. “This isn’t something that’s a one-time purchase that’s going to go away. These are costs that are going to be there. And we’re putting in … last year we put in $1.8 million, this year we’re putting $2 million of fund balance.

“At that pace in a couple of years, the fund balance is gone … and that would mean, instantly, that’s the cliff you’re talking about, is a $2 million dollar hole that would need to be filled from the tax base. So, it’s just important that as a community we think about that going forward in terms of how we address that, all at once or gradually. And we only have a few years left at the pace at which we’re spending it now.”

“We’re the largest part of the city budget, the biggest department, but at the same time we need to grow and do good things for students and support them,” Kane said. “That’s really important. That’s what excites and energizes teachers and students in our schools. And I want to support them in being able to do some great things going forward.”

The final budget will be voted on by the council at its meeting on May 16. If it is approved, it will come before the voters on June 14.

After a break for the regularly scheduled monthly council meeting, budget workshops will resume on Monday, May 23, for Maintenance, Social Services, Recreation, Public Works, the Water and Wastewater departments and any outside organizations requesting funding.

 

Zachary Lanning

Zachary Lanning

News reporter Zach Lanning covers news and features in the Ellsworth area. He comes to Ellsworth by way of New Jersey, which he hopes you don't hold against him. Email him at [email protected].
Zachary Lanning

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