TRENTON — The longer the Board of Selectmen waits to hold the annual Town Meeting, where residents can vote on this year’s elementary school budget, the more likely it is that programs – and possibly positions – will have to be cut for lack of funds, school officials said last week.
But it is now almost certain that the Town Meeting will not be held until after the Nov. 3 election, and possibly not until December.
The Town Meeting was originally scheduled for May 19, but it was postponed due to restrictions on public gatherings caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Other towns in the area that postponed their Town Meetings have since held them and passed their budgets.
Now that Election Day is less than seven weeks away, Trenton Town Clerk Carol Walsh said that trying to hold a Town Meeting before then would place too much of a burden on the three-person town office staff.
“We are right out straight dealing with our everyday work, plus all the things we have to do to make sure the election runs smoothly, and everybody is protected from the coronavirus,” she said. “We are daily getting instructions about the election from Augusta.
“To throw a town meeting right in the middle of that would make it an almost impossible task; it’s an awful lot to ask of people.”
She said the selectmen have agreed to discuss setting a date for the Town Meeting at their first meeting in November following the election. Two public hearings must be held prior to the Town Meeting.
The Trenton School Committee has approved a budget for the current fiscal year that totals $4.26 million. That is 5.97 percent more than last year’s budget.
In July, the selectmen set the property tax commitment for the current year that covers the new school budget, which meant tax bills could be sent out. But the school cannot spend the new, higher amount until the budget is passed at Town Meeting. In the meantime, spending is limited to last year’s level.
The difference between last year’s school budget and the proposed budget for the current year is $289,995. More than half of that increase, $154,659, is to cover new special education costs, including the hiring of an additional special education teacher.
“Some of these students require out–of–district placements, special instructional services and one-on-one support,” Principal Mike Zboray said in a recent letter to students’ families.
“They have more severe needs than a reading disability or something like that,” he told the Islander.
He emphasized that providing whatever services such students need is not an option; it is federally mandated.
“That’s our job, to educate individuals in our community,” Zboray said. “That’s what makes public education a great and wonderful thing. Regardless of what the needs are, we have to pay those costs to make sure we have a sound society.”
He said in his letter to families that if a new school budget isn’t passed soon, the result might be “the loss of programs such as the after-school program, extracurricular activities, sports or intramural activities in lieu of sports due to the current pandemic, maintenance needs and potentially pre-K and/or other special classes.”
School Superintendent Marc Gousse said that, at some point, keeping spending down to last year’s level “is not going to come from [cutting] field trips or paper clips; it’s people and positions.”
“I don’t want to scare people, but we could potentially be talking about layoffs,” he said.
Most of the towns in the greater MDI area typically hold Town Meetings in their local elementary school. That has not been possible this year because of the need for social distancing.
But Zboray said in his letter to families that other towns have found ways to give their residents the opportunity “to debate and vote on their budgets in a safe manner.”
Some towns, such as Bar Harbor and Mount Desert, held “drive-in” meetings in a school parking lot, a method that Zboray said has been used “with much success.”
But a majority of Trenton selectmen have wanted to wait and see if their Town Meeting could be held in person.
Board Chairman Fred Ehrlenbach told the Islander last month, “People would like to be able to participate in the normal fashion, not in a parking lot. It stifles public comment.”