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Originally published in Castine Patriot, April 11, 2013
Castine board keeps school budget increase under 3 percent
Library program: "There’s a gap"

by Anne Berleant

School board members held several meetings discussing the 2013-14 budget before approving a final number of $1,387,474 on April 3—a 2.98 percent or $40,239 increase over the current budget of $1,347,234.

Unlike the usual budgetary process where the number starts high and is then pared down over successive drafts, the approved budget showed an increase over the March 20 draft, when member Joe Spinazola cautioned against making the numbers too low.

“I don’t want any risks in this budget,” he said. “I don’t want to get caught.”

Last year, faced with sharp increases in special education and secondary tuition, the board approved a 2012-13 budget that left little wiggle room. But with unanticipated costs for bus repairs and special education tuition—coupled with about $75,000 less carryover from the previous year than projected—Superintendent Mark Hurvitt froze the budget for any new spending on February 27.

The projected carryover left at the end of this year’s budget is a low $25,000.

“That tells us our budget’s way too tight,” said Spinazola.

(Exact carryover amounts, like state subsidies, remain unknown until several months after the board creates and approves the budget voted on at town meeting in June.)

The board has also added $10,000 to the 2013-14 budget for exterior painting and repair, as a first step in a three-year plan of building maintenance.

“We’ve been putting it off,” said member Temple Blackwood, who chairs the facilities committee.

“That’s the big part of the our increase,” said Spinazola.

To help remedy the current budget, the school will ask voters at town meeting to approve transferring $15,000 from a special education reserve account to put toward current costs, and for $15,000 to put back into that account.

Special education costs, which rose $28,000 this year from 2011-12, are still on the rise, for a total $141,180. That’s an 18 percent or $22,028 increase.

Another cost that lies beyond board control—secondary education—remains about the same for 2013-14 as this year, when more students entered high school than graduated, adding about $45,000 to the 2012-13 budget. The number for 2013-14 is $281,678, representing a slight increase of $1,109.

Library or more guidance: “Which would you choose?”

What was not added to the budget was funding for a second day of guidance, which Principal Katie Frothingham requested, nor a library program.

At the March 20 meeting, children’s librarian Jessica Rollerson, seeking “a better understanding between the board, town and library,” described the services currently offered to the school by Witherle Memorial Library after its contracted program was cut by the board in 2012-13.

Currently, some teachers choose to use the library and Rollerson’s services, and some do not. For those who do, Rollerson fills requests “connected to lesson plans,” providing curriculum support, materials and instruction.

But it was the inequity in the use of and advantages gained from participating in a library program among students—even within the same grade level—that concerned the board.

“There’s a gap,” said Chairman Kathy MacArthur. “I want to know, based on what [Rollerson] presented, what aren’t we doing?”

Rollerson presented a proposal for increased services aligned with the national common core standard, at a cost of $4,961, for the coming year, but was not able to provide written verification from the Department of Education that the proposal would meet state requirements before the budget vote.

In addition, board members wanted Frothingham to meet with teachers first, with the result that “a plan is moving forward,” said Spinazola, for students to receive library instruction and services in the classroom across all grades.

“The board opted to not pay for supplemental services,” said MacArthur.

Overall, the board is working with a $32,797 drop in the cost for elementary education programs, mainly due to a full-time, top-tier teacher’s retirement, who will be replaced at 60 percent with a lower salary tier teacher.

Frothingham lobbied for two days weekly of guidance, noting it’s difficult to keep good faculty at reduced time.

The current one-day-per-week guidance program, voted in from the floor at last year’s town meeting, has used about one-third of its $9,000 budget, a result of difficulty in hiring and keeping a guidance teacher. The 2013-14 budget asks for $6,870—$2,629 less than last year.

“A second day of guidance would wipe out library,” said Temple Blackwood at the March 20 meeting. “Which would you choose?”

“I don’t think it’s a choice of either,” Spinazola said.

Hurvitt gave his perspective: “The context is that in this town we’re looking at under 50 kids. In 90 percent of towns in Maine this school wouldn’t exist.”