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School referendum detailed at meeting

The referendum to be presented to Ellsworth School District voters at the Tuesday, Nov. 4, election was detailed during a public meeting Monday. Superintendent Barry Cain discussed the referendum questions and answered queries from an audience in...

The referendum to be presented to Ellsworth School District voters at the Tuesday, Nov. 4, election was detailed during a public meeting Monday.

Superintendent Barry Cain discussed the referendum questions and answered queries from an audience in the high school cafetorium. The two questions for which the district is seeking approval regard authorization to borrow an amount not exceeding $2 million for maintenance projects and authorization to exceed the state-imposed revenue limit by $900,000 per year over five years.

Cain offered a list of potential maintenance projects to be done if the first question is approved, though he admitted the list isn't "hard and fast," and School Board President Gerald Bristol later doubted everything on the list could be accomplished for $2 million. The list addressed: the EHS roof, the EMS roof, the EHS boiler (which he said dates to the early 1960s), lighting at EMS, plumbing and heating, ventilation and air conditioning at EHS, the EHS track (which he said is 19-years-old and had a life expectancy of 12 years when installed), EHS bleachers on the visitors' side of the athletic field and in the old gym, school tennis courts (which he said aren't up to competition grade), asbestos abatement and window replacement at EHS.

Exceeding the revenue limit, if the second question is approved, wouldn't mean any new operations or expansions, but would allow continuation of existing educational programs, Cain said. He cited a desire to maintain the present quality programs, adequate class sizes and valuable intervention services.

If neither referendum question is approved, the superintendent said district officials would have to cut approximately $500,000 from the budget before mid-April. Even with approval for exceeding the revenue limit by $900,000 per year over five years, there will still be cuts necessary by the fourth year, he said.

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Approval for both questions would increase the school portion of the 2009 tax bill for an owner of a $100,000 home, for example, by $23, he said. A breakdown of the increase shows $11 for the first question (maintenance authorization) and $12 for the second question (exceeding revenue limit authorization). It translates into $837 on that same $100,000 home for the first year (however, there would be a decrease on that home to $754 if the referendum doesn't pass because the existing $250,000 revenue override is expiring).

The $23 should be the largest amount the $100,000 homeowner should pay under referendum approval, Cain said, explaining the tax will decrease over time, assuming an average yearly increase of around three percent in district valuation. Actually, the Ellsworth schools' annual valuation in recent years has been closer to six percent and the latest available figures indicate a level of just over three percent, he added.

Answering questions, the superintendent acknowledged student enrollment affects state aid and the best possible projections have the district graduating approximately 130 students annually in coming years. About the maintenance items not being completed before now, he said officials had to take into account the needs at the time, reminding the board has had to make roughly $3 million in budget cuts during the last six years.

As for the difference between the $250,000 voters approved in the revenue override referendum eight years ago and the $900,000 requested now, he said the $250,000 annually hasn't enabled the local schools to keep up. He admitted under the first year of a $900,000 override, if approved, there would be a surplus, which would likely be used to replace buses, an effort for which the district has gotten behind. Approval would also allow for building a fund balance over time.

The state-imposed revenue limit puts the schools in a bind, Cain said. With 80 percent of the budget going toward union employees' salaries under the state-required Qualified Economic Offer (an annual maximum increase of 3.8 percent in salaries and benefits) at a faster rate than the remaining 20 percent available for buses, roofs and other needs, it creates a difficult situation budget-wise.

He responded to a question about energy efficiency, saying the schools' present boilers are still 83 percent efficient even after 45-plus years, but items such as windows aren't. Maintenance on elementary schools isn't emphasized in the referendum because a recent survey of district residents resulted in a split verdict about long-range plans for them.

There will be some relief when the district's debt for the middle school ends in 2014-15, the superintendent said. Yet, a recent trend has shown state funding to Ellsworth schools decreasing. The local district's spending-per-student is quite a bit lower than the state average, he said.

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