TRENTON — Four options for possibly saving taxpayers money on education – from doing nothing different to withdrawing from the Mount Desert Island Regional School System – have been put forward by the town’s School Evaluation Options Committee (SEOC).
The committee of Trenton residents was created last summer by the Board of Selectmen to study ways the tax burden of public education on Trenton property owners might be reduced.
SEOC members were set to present their findings at the selectmen’s March 24 meeting, but because of the coronavirus threat, they were asked to postpone their presentation until more people could attend. However, their 39-page final report was posted on the town’s website last week.
Do nothing option
The first option that the SEOC identified is for the town to take no action. Not only would this not reduce costs, but it also might result in even higher education costs for the town over the next few years, the committee noted.
“Bear in mind that the (school system board) may choose to add coordinators for food service and transportation and maintenance to the payroll in the near future,” the report said.
“Consider also that in the coming years, a regional middle school may be built on Mount Desert Island. If Trenton remains part of the (system), it will be expected to fund a fair share of construction and to pay tuition for any students who enroll there. This may leave classrooms in the Trenton Elementary School empty of students, but not without overhead costs.”
Cost cutting option
The second option the SEOC described is to recommend that the school system “investigate and institute any of the cost-saving methods that this committee has identified.”
Those include billing MaineCare for medical services provided to children with special education needs; joining Southern Penobscot Regional Program for Children with Exceptionalities (SPRPCE), which, the SEOC says, “obtains better pricing…for special education services, commodities, professional training and equipment; negotiating lower health insurance costs for school employees’ family members; and exploring ways to combine [multiple schools’] staffing, purchasing and logistical and maintenance needs without creating new positions.”
The SEOC also recommends pursuing potential revenue-generating measures such as creation of “a specialty license plate in support of early education,” a local option sales tax and support of legislative initiatives to increase state funding for public education.
The third cost-saving option identified by the SEOC is for Trenton to withdraw from the MDI school system and operate independently.
“This will give Trenton autonomy to determine the curriculum it needs, the staff it needs and a budget that will better fit the town’s ability to pay,” the committee’s report states.
Under the proposed school budget for the coming fiscal year, Trenton’s share of the MDI school system’s administration costs is $152,033.
If Trenton Elementary were to become independent, the town would continue to pay tuition for Trenton students to attend MDI High School or Ellsworth High School.
Independence with partners
The SEOC’s fourth option is for Trenton to leave the MDI school system, but to “approach Ellsworth, Lamoine and/or Hancock regarding sharing services, purchases, etc.”
SEOC Chair Susan Sargent said the committee did not recommend which option the town should choose.
“The Board of Selectmen needs to absorb this [information] and give recommendations,” she said. “Then it’s up to the townspeople; they need to make the decision. We just wanted to give the options. We wanted to be unbiased.”
SEOC members did extensive research and interviewed a number of people, including school superintendents in other districts and both current and former members of the Legislature.
“We tried to be as detailed as we could and provide all the documentation for what we discovered and what we thought were good possibilities (for saving money),” Sargent said.
“I was excited to be asked to do this, to hopefully help people understand where we are and what we need to do to move forward and do the best we can for our children and our community, because our community is struggling.”
Sargent, a former Trenton School Committee member, said Trenton isn’t alone in facing rising costs and inadequate state support.
“It basically goes for all schools everywhere; all the towns are in the same boat,” she said.