Deep school cuts proposed

SOUTHWEST HARBOR — The town’s Warrant Committee is recommending voters cut the proposed budget for the Pemetic Elementary School by nearly $174,000 when they act on the matter at the May 2 open town meeting.

The proposed $3.5 million budget for the school is about $176,000 more than approved for the current school year.

Warrant Committee Chairman Nancy Weingarten presented their recommendations to selectmen at the board’s regular meeting on Tuesday.

Weingarten said the committee is recommending to essentially flat-fund the school because members felt strongly that the 5.3 percent increase to the budget is unwarranted.

“We want to make a statement about holding the line,” she said.

In response to a question, Weingarten said cutting the budget could lead to cuts in staffing at the school.

“We feel very strongly that it could be done,” she said. “We’re not anti-school; we’re not anti-teacher; we just want it to work well.”

Two School Committee members – Eric Henry and Ingrid Wilbur Kachmar – questioned the committee’s decision.

Henry pointed out that, if the Warrant Committee recommendations were approved by voters, the upcoming school year would be the third year in a row where the budget remained essentially flat despite increasing costs.

School officials at a selectmen’s meeting last month said the major increases in the budget are in the lines for regular instruction and special education. In regular instruction, salaries and health insurance, both items officials have no control over, are driving the increase. Salaries and insurance costs also are behind the $123,000 increase in special education. More than half of that is due to the need to hire two full-time and one half-time ed tech in that department.

At one time, voters had the option of cutting or increasing the total budget for a school. However, in recent years, the state has required that budgets be approved in separate cost centers. The Warrant Committee recommendations include cuts to six of the 11 cost centers appearing on the town meeting warrant regarding the school.

The deepest cut recommended by the committee is in the budget for special education. They recommend that $89,234 be slashed from the $781,736 special education line.

Wilbur Kachmar reminded Weingarten that the special education budget is based on the known needs within the school and the needs of those entering the school in the fall. Paying for these services is required.

“That’s a federal mandate,” Wilbur Kachmar said. “If that money’s not in there, it possibly would put the town in legal jeopardy.”

If voters were to approve the special education cut, the question becomes whether funds from other cost centers can be shifted to cover, Henry said.

On Wednesday, Howard Colter, superintendent of the Mount Desert Island school system, said only a limited amount, 5 percent, can be transferred between cost centers.

“If this were to pass, my understanding is the [school] board is blocked in a way they weren’t in the past,” Colter said. “It would be a disaster.”

Mark Good

Mark Good

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Mark Good

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