MOUNT DESERT ISLAND — The elementary schools in Mount Desert, Southwest Harbor and Tremont had planned to start pre-kindergarten programs this fall.
Now, on the recommendation of Superintendent Marc Gousse, the Mount Desert school committee has voted to put its pre-K program on hold. The Southwest Harbor and Tremont school committees have not yet taken a formal vote, but they have strongly indicated that they, too, will not budget for a pre-K program in the coming year.
Earlier this spring, all the school committees passed their budgets for next year. Now, those budgets are being revised to eliminate many if not all new spending items.
“I think it is the prudent thing to do to position us for what could be some very uncertain economic times before us,” Gousse said.
The reason for the austerity moves, of course, is the unknown ultimate effect the COVID-19 crisis will have on local municipal revenues. If town meetings cannot be held by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year, then towns and schools will have to continue operating at the current level of funding until the new budgets are approved. But increases in teachers’ salaries and health insurance costs will still take effect July 1.
Mount Desert Elementary’s original budget for next year called for $214,532 in new spending. All but $34,000 of that was to be for pre-K.
“I’m sad we had to remove (that); it was a tough one to lose,” said Principal Gloria Delsandro. “I know it’s the right thing to do. But I will look forward to coming back and addressing that, hopefully next year, because it is something that will really serve our children and our community well.”
Gousse told the Tremont school committee that he is “really, really disappointed” that he cannot recommend starting a pre-K program this fall. “We just can’t with good conscience advance any additional items at this time.”
New items that will be staying in the Tremont school budget are one additional day of speech and language therapy and an ed tech for a student who will be entering the school in the fall.
Coming out of the budget will be Tremont’s share of funding for a behavioral specialist to work with children in several of the district’s elementary schools.
Gousse said that position is a high priority for everyone: “It’s not just a wish; it’s a need.”
“But the responsible thing to do for citizens right now, balanced with what we’re doing for kids, is to pull back on that recommendation.”
School committee member Jessica Stewart said she had concerns about too much belt tightening.
“What if we go back in the fall and we’ve got all these high needs because things have kind of gone to hell for kids over the break?” she said. “And then we’re sort of pushed up against the wall about building the budget back up in subsequent years.”
Principal Jandrea True said accurate information from school officials would be necessary to advocate in the future for items cut from next year’s budget.
“We are in these extreme times,” she said. “We want to be careful to not falsely put out there that we do not need these funds.”
The revised budget for Conners Emerson School in Bar Harbor also will be slimmer than the original version. Instead of a 3.05 increase in property tax funding, it will require an increase of 1.56 percent.
The school committee voted to eliminate a behavioral specialist position. Patty Galeaz, who has held that recently created position, will return to teaching second grade next year.
The behavioral specialist position may be reinstated in the future. Principal Barb Neilly said Galeaz’s work has been “really powerful.”
Conners Emerson, like other schools in the district, also expects to be able to save some money without cutting staff or programs. For example, with remote learning, there is not as much need for substitute teachers. The schools also will benefit from lower heating oil prices; Conners Emerson expects to save about $20,000. Also, the schools had been prepared for an increase in health insurances costs of up to 10 percent. The actual increase will be 6 percent.
Gousse praised Neilly and the school committee for “fighting for the resources that kids and teachers need” while recognizing that many people may struggle to pay their taxes next year.
Liz Graves and Sarah Hinckley contributed to this story.