TRENTON — Voters at town meeting Tuesday night authorized spending $58,000 to start a prekindergarten program at Trenton Elementary School this fall and, over the objection of the Board of Selectmen, approved the rest of the elementary school budget.
The selectmen had recommended that the budget not be approved as presented because they said it was too high, citing particularly the cost of health insurance for teachers and staff.
“If we don’t do something to control health insurance costs, it will eat the budget right up,” said Fred Ehrlenbach, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.
He said the town pays for health insurance for its employees, but not for their children or families, and he suggested the school should do the same.
“Currently, the school is paying $21,500 for an ed tech and giving them $15,000 worth of health insurance,” Ehrlenbach said. “At some point, the health insurance benefit is going to be more than the pay.
“We have people in this town who have had their houses foreclosed on simply because they can’t afford to pay their taxes. People are struggling. We have to balance their needs versus the school’s needs.”
Marc Gousse, superintendent of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System, which includes Trenton Elementary, said he was “a little disappointed” that the voters were being asked to choose between cutting the budget and supporting the school. And he said it was “unfortunate” that he didn’t know that the selectmen opposed the school budget as presented until he read about it in the town meeting warrant.
“Moving forward, if there are issues with the school budget, I want to hear about it,” he said. “I can’t fix it if I don’t know it’s broken.”
Gousse said that in the future, he is committed to working with the selectmen, as well as with the Trenton School Committee, to develop a budget that balances all of the town’s needs.
He noted that the question of who pays how much for teachers’ health insurance is part of the collective bargaining agreement between the teachers’ union and the schools. Negotiations for the next three-year contract, which is to start Sept. 1, have been going on since last September.
As to whether the overall school budget is too high, Gousse said, “Do you know how they plan prisons? They look at third-grade reading levels.
“You can be very proud of your school; it is performing above state average,” he continued. “Your tax dollars are being used, very, very wisely. Every dollar you spend is realizing results for these children.”
Gousse said that, although he disagreed with the selectmen about the school budget, he respects their position.
“They’re looking out for your tax dollars,” he said. “But I implore you to please support your school and charge us with the responsibility of working together to find a path forward for this community that doesn’t divide us.”
The school budget for next year that voters approved totals just under $3.55 million, an increase of about $162,000 over the current year’s budget. The budget includes $726,856 in tuition for 54 Trenton students to attend MDI High School next year.
Pre-K added on
The regular school budget does not include the $58,000 that voters approved for the first year of prekindergarten education. That is roughly half of the anticipated first-year cost. The other half will be covered by federal Head Start funds.
This fall, Trenton Elementary will become the first school in the district to have a pre-K class. It will accommodate up to 16 4-year-olds.
Principal Mike Zboray has previously cited a University of Southern Maine study that included a cost-benefit analysis of public pre-K programs. It found that every dollar invested in such programs can ultimately save taxpayers $7. Zboray said the savings come mostly in special education.
“If you’re able to intervene earlier and provide support for kids, you might not need that extra ed tech when, come third grade, the child is still struggling,” he said.
Voters at town meeting approved a municipal budget of $1.02 million, a reduction of $33,835 from this year’s budget. That is because the current budget included $65,000 for paving the elementary school parking lot. The elimination of that expense for the coming year more than offsets the small increases in some other budget lines.
Ehrlenbach said that, until property assessments for this year are completed, it won’t be known how much the new municipal and school budgets will increase the tax rate, which is currently $10 per $1,000 of property valuation. But he said it likely would increase by 50-75 cents.
Selectmen Carlene Hanscom and John Bennett were re-elected in voting on Monday, outpolling challenger Rachel Nobel. Hanscom received 102 votes; Bennett got 102, and Nobel got 86.
Aaron Brown and Gary Burr were re-elected to the School Committee. They ran unopposed.