ELLSWORTH — An anticipated increase in state subsidies for Ellsworth schools came through in an amount just under $700,000, Superintendent Dan Higgins told School Board members on July 13. The state budget allotted the needed funds to respond — nearly 18 years later —to a 2004 voter-approved referendum requiring the state to cover 55 percent of local education costs.
Higgins informed the City Council during its budget discussions of the likelihood of extra education funds flowing into Ellsworth and said the board will work with councilors to resolve how the funds should be allocated. He recommended that the “overwhelming majority” of the extra subsidy be used to lower the tax burden on city property owners.
The $23.6 million school budget, approved by the board, City Council and voters for 2021-22, laid $11,566,605 at the feet of taxpayers. At that time, the state subsidy was set at $4.32 million.
In addition to lowering the tax burden, Higgins did have further suggestions for the additional subsidy, including increasing the high school health position from half-time to full-time. Earlier in the meeting, physical education and health department head Julie Hammer had made an impassioned plea for the change, which was already on the superintendent’s radar. Board members unanimously approved the position change but not how it would be funded.
Higgins also pointed to the cost of a new boiler for Hancock County Technical Center to come from the extra state funds instead of the school district’s fund balance.
“To me, that’s a no brainer,” he said.
Special education and capital reserve are also where some of the extra funds could land, Higgins said.
School Board Vice Chairwoman Abigail Miller pointed to “big things, like the roof and gym.” She noted the district has regularly deferred maintenance to keep the tax burden down.
“When we are given an opportunity like this, I think we should look at that list of our building improvements [and] where we’re at with that,” Miller said.
New board member Muneer Hasham, appointed to replace Jennifer Alexander, who stepped down last month, suggested committing some funds for cleaning. His point was that in the event of a COVID-19 infection at the school, custodians could clean overnight, earning overtime pay, instead of closing schools or portions of the school.
“There are parents that have to go to work,” he said, noting the ripple effect on the workforce when parents stay home for child-care reasons. “Closing the school is actually quite traumatic.”
Higgins said he will find out the deadline for setting the 2021-22 mill rate from City Manager Glenn Moshier and work with him and the School Board’s Finance Committee, concluding: “The council’s perspective on this is very important.”