System budget getting a shave

BAR HARBOR — “I have no doubt in my mind that this budget needs to be pared back,” Howard Colter, superintendent of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS) told the school system board Monday night.

He was talking about the budget that the board approved in December for the superintendent’s office and system-wide services for next year. That budget of $1.86 million was 16.2 percent higher than the current year’s budget.

At Colter’s recommendation, the board held a special meeting Monday to reconsider the budget and agreed to reduce the year-to-year increase to under 10 percent.

Residents of the eight towns with MDIRSS schools will have an opportunity to vote on the proposed $1.75 million budget at the school system’s annual meeting next Monday, Jan. 25, at 7 p.m. at MDI High School.

On Dec. 17, Colter presented a proposed budget of $1.7 million, but offered the school board “additional items to consider.” The board voted to include all of those items, which had a combined cost of about $158,000 and brought the total budget to $1.86 million.

“I think that would be a very large pill for taxpayers to swallow,” Colter said at Monday’s meeting.

He recommended – and the board agreed – to reduce the proposed budget by $106,380. Of that amount, up to $60,000 would have been used to contract with a licensed school psychologist to work with students with mental health disabilities.

However, the school system would have passed those costs along to the individual schools that requested those services. Now, the schools will be responsible for contracting directly with a psychologist. So, theoretically, the cost to the schools will be the same; it just won’t be part of the school system budget.

The school board on Monday also agreed with Colter’s recommendation not to include $41,820 for a half-time instructional coach to help teachers improve their skills.

“I’m of the opinion that, while it would be appreciated and useful to have an instructional coach half-time, … we’ve got to find some places to make some reductions, and I would opt for that,” Colter said.

Julie Meltzer, the school system’s director of curriculum, assessment and instruction, said the schools can get by without a dedicated, in-house instructional coach for another year.

“We can deal with it,” she said. “But I’m going to come to you next year because it’s a real need; it’s not a fake need.”

Also cut from the budget was $4,560 for technology support, but Colter said that cut would not affect staffing or services.

Among the “extra” items the board voted last month to include in the budget, Colter recommended keeping $41,820 for a half-time position to help coordinate the school system’s “response to intervention (RTI) and assessment functions.

RTI is an approach to identifying and supporting students with learning difficulties. Various types of interventions are used to help students who are falling behind.

The assessment part of the job involves developing achievement standards and following up to see if students are meeting them.

School board member Eric Henry said at Monday’s meeting that he was among those who had “led the charge” to approve the higher budget last month.

“I’ve always been one to go as far as I can to get what we need to help the kids in the system,” he said.

But Henry said he trusted Colter and his staff when it comes to deciding what the school system can live without.

“If they say they can deal with it, then I’m OK with that,” he said.

Board member Caroline Pryor noted that the school system board and individual school committees often try to keep annual budget increases to 5 percent or less.

“Even though 5 percent is a wonderful goal, there are some years when … you have to absorb some other increases,” she said. “A lot of those are about meeting student needs.”

The school board did not take action to revise next year’s proposed budget downward. Rather, they voted to have board Chairman Charlie Wray propose an amendment to the budget, adopted in December, on the floor of the annual meeting Jan. 25. That amendment will call for reducing the budget by $106,380 to a total of $1.75 million.

While that would reduce the budget increase to 9.57 percent, the amount that the towns in the school district would be assessed would drop only from 16.2 percent to 12.73 percent. The reason, Colter explained, is that the towns will still be paying for the schools to contract with a psychologist; the district won’t have the money to cover it.

Dick Broom

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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