BAR HARBOR — The amount of money being spent by schools in the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS) keeps going up, while the number of students overall continues to drop.
“I think someone ought to be asking us why,” Superintendent Howard Colter said in an interview with the Islander. “Does this make sense? Is this the best we can do?”
Since 2000, when there were eight schools in the Mount Desert Island-area school system, their combined budgets have increased by 84 percent, while the number of students in those schools has dropped by 23 percent.
MDI High School’s budget has doubled since 2000, to $9.7 million this year, while its enrollment has dropped from 663 to 526. Enrollment reached a peak of 708 in 2003.
As of last fall, enrollment at Conners Emerson School in Bar Harbor was 366, down 98 students from 2000. The 196 students at Mount Desert Elementary last fall was 21 fewer than in 2000, but up from a low of 152 in 2009.
Pemetic Elementary in Southwest Harbor saw a 40 percent drop in enrollment, from 238 to 142, between 2000 and 2015. At the same time, Tremont Consolidated School experienced a 42.6 percent decline in enrollment, from 197 students to 113.
As for the outer islands, Swans Island School had 36 students in 2000 and 38 this year, with a high of 53 in 2012. Ashley Bryan School on Islesford went from 12 students in 2000 to 17 now. Frenchboro School, with four students in 2000 and three this year, had a high of 14 in 2009.
Trenton Elementary, which became the ninth MDIRSS school in 2009, has seen very little change in either its budget or student enrollment since then. This year’s enrollment of 121 is down one from 2009, but up 18 from 2011.
Over the past 15 years, the number of personnel in the school system’s central office, including the superintendent, has doubled, and the central office budget has more than tripled, from $488,770 to $1.6 million. Next year’s budget, which includes an additional half-time position, will be $1.75 million.
Colter said he always has been impressed that taxpayers in MDIRSS towns are very generous in their support of education.
“They say, I think with real conviction, that they want to do what they can for the next generation,” he said.
“But when you have a growing population of people here who don’t have children in schools and a growing population on a fixed income and a declining enrollment, it’s going to be harder and harder to maintain this level of growth in the budgets. And it shouldn’t be at a crisis point when you start reacting and making decisions. The district needs a long-term plan.”
Colter, who was superintendent from 1992 to 2004 and returned to the post in 2012, plans to retire June 30.
He has renewed his call for the creation of a single middle school for grades six through eight for the entire district. He said he has no doubt it would be better for students’ academic and social development.
With a separate middle school, at least two of the five elementary schools, not including those on the outer islands, would be left with well under 100 students in grades K-5.
Colter said that would almost certainly lead to some consolidation at the elementary school level, both to ensure that children receive a quality education and to save taxpayers money.
Noting that the offerings for students at the various elementary schools are similar but not identical, Colter said, “I think we could consider school choice within our district and let parents decide what’s the best place for their kids, based on the programs that are offered or based on family needs.”
There are a number of reasons why school budgets have continued to go up, even as enrollments have dropped. One is a rise in personnel costs due largely to the annual increases in salaries and health insurance costs. For next year, personnel costs will account for well over half of the increases in the schools’ budgets. At the high school, it’s 60 percent of the increase.
The increase in special education needs is another factor in the continuing rise in school budgets.
“I’m not in any way critical of special ed,” Colter said. “I respect that every child deserves an equal education and that, if there are children with disabilities, we need to meet those needs.”
He said the schools have a mandate to serve children with special needs.
“But it isn’t just that we have a mandate; a mandate doesn’t move me,” he said. “It’s that we have an obligation and an opportunity.”
But the fact remains, Colter said, that there has been a growing number of children with what he described as “very complicated needs” who require additional personnel to work with them.
The greatly increased use of computer technology over the past 15 years has added both equipment and personnel costs to school budgets.
And Colter said the structure of the school district, in which every school is largely independent, virtually guarantees redundancy, inefficiency and greater expense. He cited as one example the preparation of reports – from attendance records to how grant money is spent – required by the state and federal governments.
Under the previous school system structure, one of each type of report was written for the entire district. “Now, we have to do one for every single school,” Colter said. “That requires more people and more time.”