Trenton Elementary School principal Mike Zboray with Pre-K students. The school's budget will require a major tax hike for residents in the coming year. Selectmen Mark Remick said the budget vote will probably "not be a fun day."

School faces budget crisis

TRENTON — If voters at the May 21 town meeting approve the $3.97 million budget for Trenton Elementary School for next year that the school committee adopted Tuesday, property owners will pay 15.13 percent more in taxes.

That increase amounts to $147.70 for every $100,000 of property valuation.

And the budget does not include $50,000 that would be needed to continue the school’s pre-kindergarten program for a second year. The Trenton selectmen want that to be voted on separately at town meeting.

The biggest single factor in the budget increase is a 42.39 percent hike in funding for special education. About $179,000 of the additional cost is for two children whose special education needs have required their placement in other schools. Because the children are Trenton residents, the town is responsible for the cost of their education.

One student’s family moved to Trenton after the budget for the current year was approved at last year’s town meeting. Principal Mike Zboray said the “alternative placement” needs of the other student were not known before school started last fall. So, the school is bearing the additional costs for both students this year.

To help with that, Zboray is using $110,000 of the $113,000 in the school’s special education reserve account. And he is limiting school purchasing to essential items.

The school also is using a larger-than-planned amount of the revenue that was carried over from the previous year. As a result, the budget for next year calls for carrying over 26.55 percent less than was budgeted for the current year. A smaller carryover means a larger town appropriation.

In addition, several more Trenton students are expected to attend Mount Desert Island High School and Ellsworth High School next year, so tuition costs will increase by nearly $99,000, or 13.57 percent. Those costs are included in the elementary school budget.

The preliminary budget that Zboray presented to the school committee in January called for an increase in taxpayer funding of $606,850, or 20.15 percent. Administrators and school committee members, in consultation with teachers and town officials, have trimmed that increase to about 15 percent.

“Any additional cuts will dismantle education as we know it for the children of this school,” Superintendent Marc Gousse said at the Trenton school committee meeting Tuesday. “To budget even close to what may be considered acceptable by some is to eliminate positions and programs.”

He said those could include “all activities, all athletics, extra-curricular programs and after-school programs.”

“As I see it, you cannot cut your way out of this mess.”

Gousse said he understands that a large tax increase would place a significant burden on some Trenton residents, especially those on fixed incomes, but he said the school committee “has the primary responsibility to fund education to support the needs of children.”

Gousse said that, although no one wants to consider the option of closing the school and paying to send students elsewhere, he and Nancy Thurlow, the school system’s business manager, have tried to figure out what that would mean financially. He said the cost would be at least $3.13 million or about $842,000 less than the school’s budget for the coming year. But he said the school might also have to pay unemployment costs for laid-off teachers and staff, and the town would need to continue maintaining the building.

“I don’t believe you would achieve significant savings, and I don’t think it would be good for children,” Gousse said. “I don’t know of a single Hancock County school that would say they could take them all.”

Trenton Elementary currently has 144 students.

“And if you close the school, your local control will be gone,” Gousse said.

The Trenton school’s financial difficulties were discussed Monday night at the school system board meeting.

“If our budget doesn’t pass, we’re talking about losing major things for our kids,” Trenton School Committee Chairman Jennifer Bonilla said at that meeting.

“I don’t want to close the school. I don’t want to have my students shipped somewhere else to try to make a budget smaller for the town to afford it.”

All four members of the Trenton school committee voted Tuesday to adopt the budget without further cuts. But they appeared to do so reluctantly.

“This has been very stressful because you are putting people’s fate in our hands,” committee member Peter Finger said.

“But if you do drastic cuts, this won’t be a school anymore; it will be hollow…if we get rid of sports, get rid of music and all of that. So, I think we just need to go to the taxpayers, to the voters and see what they say.”

Trenton Selectman Mark Remick has been closely following the school budget deliberations and attended Tuesday’s school committee meeting.

“The selectmen understand we have an obligation to our staff, our teachers, our kids and our taxpayers,” he said. “All of those things need to be balanced out.

“We’re all working toward the same end. None of us feel good about this.”

Asked if he thought voters at town meeting would approve the school budget without significant cuts, Remick said, “Nobody’s got a crystal ball, but my feeling is that this is not going to be a fun day.”

Gousse emphasized that Trenton is not unique in facing a serious budget crisis, noting that Southwest Harbor had a somewhat similar situation a few years ago.

“It is a virtual certainty that this will happen in another community down the road if we don’t do something to restructure costs,” he said. “I don’t mean closing a school. I don’t mean giving up local control.”

He said the answer is for all of the schools in the district to work together to achieve greater efficiency, which might include sharing some personnel and programs.

Bonilla told the school system board on Monday, “We need to figure out how we can combine our special ed forces, our kitchen forces, anything we can combine, so that you won’t be in the predicament next year that we are in this year. We really need to help our schools so that they all stay open and they’re all functioning and supporting our kids.”

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]

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