Hard questions

Board members approved the budget for the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS) last week. It contains one of the largest increases of any local governmental entity in recent memory – more than 16 percent.

That hike comes on the heels of steady and robust growth of the district’s budget over the past few years, with increases of five and six percent annually becoming routine. The major reason for the increases in the past, and again this year, is the growth in district staff. For next year, money is being sought for two new half-time positions, for expanding the hours of a technology specialist and for hiring a full-time licensed school psychologist.

While towns are apportioned a share of these costs using the current formula, the district also bills a portion of its expenses to MDI High School. That is passed on, again, to member towns through that budget.

Over the past half dozen years, the district, or superintendent’s office, has grown at a rapid rate. Each individual addition or expansion seems reasonable and justified. However, that overall trend needs to be watched closely as well.

Often, part-time positions are added, or some portion of an employee’s pay is funded with grants or private donations. But sooner or later, those duties expand, and what once was temporary soon becomes indispensible and permanent. Donations and grants dry up.

How long before these newly requested part-time positions evolve to full-time? If history is any guide, it will be only a year or two.

Ironically, MDIRSS Superintendent Howard Colter said this fall that increases in local school budgets for the next fiscal year “will be minimal.” So far, only the working budgets for the individual elementary schools bear that out.

The overall increases in costs for education borne by property taxpayers, however, will be anything but minimal should the district budget continue with such meteoric increases.

The MDIRSS budget has been approved by the district school board, but voters at the annual meeting on Jan. 25 will have the final say. Once the district budget passes its own public meeting, the amount is locked in stone. Voters at individual town meetings will be unable to change it.

Traditionally, the annual budget meeting is poorly attended, with school district employees and board members vastly outnumbering private citizens. If few from the public take the time to attend this year, that rightfully will be taken as tacit endorsement of the district’s robust spending plans. If taxpayers feel the steady push to expand staff and budget at the district office is not merited, that Jan. 25 meeting is the place to make such objections known.


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