TRENTON — The School Evaluation Options Committee (SEOC) met Tuesday for its fourth open forum at the Trenton town office to discuss the committee’s findings following its year-long investigation into solutions for the area’s rising education costs. Chairwoman Susan Sargent and committee member Susan Starr gave the presentation to an audience of three, including state Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth), whose district includes Trenton.
The report has been available on the town’s website since April, but the open forum gave committee members the chance to highlight findings and take questions from the public.
The SEOC was formed in 2019. Members are appointed by the Board of Selectmen to identify possible cost-saving measures to rein in Trenton’s increasing education costs.
Economic concerns include Trenton’s rising tax rate, which has climbed since 2018 to pay for the school budget while the town’s valuation growth has remained modest, Sargent explained.
“This is why we are struggling,” she said. “We just don’t have the tax base.”
An additional concern is the formula the state uses to determine what public schools must pay toward the cost of education and what the state is mandated to contribute, called the Essential Programs and Services (EPS) formula. Because Trenton is a minimum receiver school, meaning its property tax base has been deemed capable of funding all school costs, the town must pay for EPS-mandated curriculum, as well as all the extra services and extracurricular activities it supports. Sargent explained that if the Trenton school only offered the EPS mandates, there wouldn’t be sports, music, languages and gifted and talented programs. The committee and Grohoski discussed having more representation from minimum receiver schools as part of school funding committees in Augusta.
Another area where costs are rising is in special education.
“We’re consistently trying to make efforts toward funding more special education,” Grohoski said, noting that several years ago, the state funded about 80 percent of special education costs. “That’s one of the problems that I see that can really throw a community of this size, that doesn’t as have many students, into a tailspin.” Grohoski explained that if the state increased its funding to get back to its previous higher percentage, towns wouldn’t have the “shock effect” of paying for the services.
Cost-saving measures proposed by the committee include billing MaineCare for services such as occupational therapy, speech therapy and social work, instead of adding these services to the taxpayer- supported budget, Sargent said. She added that the Mount Desert Island Regional School System, of which Trenton is a member, has forgone this option in the past due to the laborious billing process. Sargent said that the billing operations could be assigned to a trained ed tech. The committee’s research found that the Bangor school system often bills MaineCare for these services.
Grohoski wondered if Trenton could come up with a “forward-thinking plan” to “build economic value outside of home-related taxes.” Ideas included encouraging business development and making Trenton a biomedical development hub.
“I think this community has so much potential,” she said.
A local options sales tax was also discussed. The proposed tax would be a seasonal tax administered by lodging establishments so that visitors and not residents would pay the tax. Grohoski voiced support but discussed the general hesitancy for raising taxes due to public perception, even though this tax would not affect local taxpayers and local municipalities can choose not to approve instituting such a tax.
The report concluded with an overview of four options to tackle school costs in Trenton going forward. Options include doing nothing, implementing cost-saving measures identified by the committee (such as billing MaineCare for medically-related special education services), withdrawing from the MDI school system and withdrawing from the MDI school system with the goal of forming different partnerships, such as with Ellsworth, Hancock or Lamoine, in order to share services.
At the end of the presentation, Sargent and Starr handed out a survey for audience feedback.
There will be another forum Monday, Nov. 9, at 7 p.m. at the town office. Seating is limited due to social distancing, so residents are asked to call the town ahead of time to reserve a seat.