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Originally published in Castine Patriot, January 23, 2014
Penobscot school board zeroes in on 2014-15 budget

by Anne Berleant

With members of the budget committee present, the school board reviewed a third draft of the 2014-15 budget on January 13, and then accepted Superintendent Mark Hurvitt’s recommendation to freeze the current budget.

“I feel this is the time,” he said, noting an additional high school student tuition cost. The latest central office summary of accounts shows a projected surplus of under $20,000 by June 30, the end of the budget year.

First, the board reviewed a 2014-15 budget draft that looked leaner than earlier versions until it hit the bottom line.

Despite a board decision to delay purchasing a new school bus for one more year and not move forward with a second day of technology instruction, the budget now stands at $1,674,663, a 5.8 percent or $91,879 increase from the current year.

Hurvitt said most increases represented fixed costs outside the board’s control, such as anticipated hikes in teacher health insurance costs, and pay-ins toward teacher retirement funds (including for George Stevens Academy teachers, a new state requirement that has raised the ire of all Union 93 schools). Negotiated teacher salary increases total $24,214 for 10 teachers, five of whom are full-time.

High school tuition costs are up $33,492 or 7.15 percent; $6,501 of that represents the mandated teacher retirement kick-in. Special education costs, now separated in the budget from special education administration, are up 3.9 percent or $3,757. Administration of special education, run through the union central office, is up $3,905 or 3.21 percent. The total of both lines is $224,046, “much of which [is] not discretionary,” Hurvitt said. Providing special education to eligible students is mandated by the federal Individual with Disabilities Act. Ten students qualify in Penobscot, Principal Allen Cole said.

Two proposed new costs—$2,500 for a smart board and $4,900 for a three-week summer literacy camp—have survived.

Last year, the literacy camp, which ran in all Union 93 towns and was completely grant-funded, served 15-20 Penobscot students each week. Union curriculum coordinator Rachel Kohrman Ramos will try to fund the 2014 program through grants, but has no guarantees.

“It was popular,” Cole said, and Penobscot was the only town able to provide a free lunch following the morning camp.

“I would say leave it in and let the town decide,” said board member Jim Goodman. “It’s a good program.”

With the decision to delay the purchase of a new bus, the budget includes $15,000 for bus repairs, along with a request to add $5,000 to the bus reserve—but finance committee members recommended increasing the reserve amount.

“I’m in favor of funding reserve accounts, to smooth over expenditures,” said Finance Committee Chairman Nick Henry, adding that town surplus money, if available, can be used to cover the purchase cost over what’s in a reserve account, so as not to “hit everyone’s current tax bill.”

The account currently holds $10,000; the cost of a new bus is about $65,000. The older (2001) of Penobscot’s two buses has about 85,000 miles. “It’s not going to pass inspection this year,” Chairman Gerald Markley said. He recommended adding $15,000 to the reserve account, to “bring it close to half the cost” of a new bus.

The school board meets twice in January to further hone the budget. The town office has requested a board-approved version be submitted by January 31.

In other business, the board unanimously approved the final version of the school emergency plan, and approved 4-0-1 (Hutchins) the enrollment of a nonresident teacher’s son at the school.

Finally, Principal Allen Cole’s contract was extended one year, to end on June 30, 2016, with a 2 percent or $1,406 raise. Support staff raises have yet to be decided, but at 2 percent, would total $4,502, Hurvitt said. Both increases are not reflected in the current budget version.

Upcoming meetings:

Penobscot School Board, budget meetings: Tuesday, January 21, 7 p.m. and Monday, January 27, 4 p.m.; regular meeting, Monday, February 10, 6 p.m., at the school.