TRENTON — The ongoing debate about whether the Trenton Elementary School should remain part of its current school district, AOS 91, will continue at the town’s annual meeting. Susan Sargent brought forth a citizens’ petition at the Board of Selectmen’s meeting Tuesday to get the issue on the warrant.
The petition, which obtained 75 certified signatures, would ask voters whether the Trenton School Committee should develop a plan for withdrawing from AOS 91. That plan would have to be approved by the state Department of Education before going to voters for final approval.
The town also will vote at its annual meeting whether to approve the school’s proposed 2021-22 budget of $4,359,588, a 1.6 percent increase from last year, or $19.83 per $100,000 of property valuation.
The proposed budget includes increasing the school nurse’s hours from part time to full time due to needs generated by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Trenton School Committee unanimously voted to approve the budget earlier in the day and voted to make proposed roof repairs a separate warrant article totaling $80,000.
Sixty thousand dollars of that would be for the library’s roof, with $20,000 allocated for fixing the roof on the south end of the building, where solar technology could potentially be implemented.
The proposed budget was presented by Trenton Elementary School Principal Michael Zboray, AOS 91 Superintendent Marc Gousse and AOS 91 Business Manager Nancy Thurlow once the board adjourned to its Budget Committee meeting.
Both actions, the citizens’ petition and the presentation of the budget, follow over a year of scrutiny regarding school costs and Trenton’s place in AOS 91.
A group called the School Evaluation Options Committee (SEOC) formed in 2019. Sargent was the chairwoman of the SEOC, which studied cost-saving measures the school could implement to ease the burden on taxpayers for funding the school’s rising costs. The group has since disbanded.
In December, the SEOC recommended to the Trenton School Committee that the school withdraw from AOS 91, which the SEOC said would help maintain the school’s budget.
The SEOC also recommended the School Committee hold a vote of no confidence in the superintendent.
In a Feb. 9 letter, the School Committee voiced its support for Gousse and its opposition to the withdrawal recommendation, stating, “The SEOC makes the assumption that pulling out of negotiations on the AOS common contract will result in savings.”
Lowering salaries and benefits may result in “teachers being poached by other school districts,” the letter reads.
In a Jan. 11 letter, 32 out of 40 Trenton teachers and staff voiced their opposition to withdrawing from the district. The letter stated that membership in the district has many advantages, including professional development opportunities, special education support and services and grant funding opportunities.
Those in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting asked several clarifying questions regarding the proposed budget, including whether other options, such as grant funding and coronavirus relief funds had been used when possible instead of relying on taxpayers.
One question concerned funding for the district’s asymptomatic testing program for COVID-19.
Zboray explained that for 2020-21, the program received grant funding that it will not receive next year and can only be funded by taxpayers.
SEOC member Sue Starr asked if any of the proposed legal fees in the budget, which fall under the category of Office of the Superintendent, were specifically relevant to Trenton.
“We’re not going to get into the specifics of legal counsel,” Gousse said.
Starr responded, “We’re paying for that, but we really have no idea whether it’s helping our school.”
The SEOC has previously raised concerns about Trenton’s role in AOS 91 and its contribution to the school district’s shared central office. In a statement, group members wrote, “It is our opinion that Trenton is seen as a source of funding to fulfill the superintendent’s desired organizational growth and not as an equal member among other AOS towns.”
A heated exchange occurred at the end of the meeting when Trenton resident and Planning Board Chairman John Whetstone asked if certain reserve funds needed approval from the Board of Selectmen before being used.
Gousse, who was attending the meeting virtually, explained that spending the funds was within the School Committee’s purview, adding, “check with your legal counsel if you have questions about that.”
That prompted laughter from members of the audience (not Whetstone) attending the meeting in-person. Gousse responded, “I’m sorry you find that funny, it’s not humorous.”
Trenton Town Meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, May 18.