Approximately 42 Wiscasset residents gathered in the high school gym Wednesday, May 27 to vote on the Wiscasset School Department’s proposed 2015-2016 budget of $8,426,886.08.
Voters also considered separate warrant articles to fund a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics laboratory at the high school and an upgraded playground at the middle school.
With little debate and only scattered votes in opposition, the school department’s proposed budget was approved, in addition to an extra $33,692.51 to fund upgrades to the middle school playground.
After lengthy discussion, the proposed $100,000 expenditure to fund construction of the STEM lab was voted down by eight votes.
The approved school budget for 2015-2016, with the additional expenditure for the playground, is a 10.07 percent, or $947,484.32, decrease from the previous year’s budget of $9,408,062.91.
The school committee made a promise to the community that approximately $750,000 would be shaved off the school budget if one of Wiscasset’s three school buildings was closed and that promise was fulfilled.
Residents who spoke at the special town meeting, however, expressed concern the cost centers voted on showed no comparisons from the previous budget, making it hard to determine where savings were found in the budget.
According to information provided at a March 30 school committee budget workshop, the largest decreases in the budget were in the categories of regular instruction, school administration, facilities maintenance, and all other expenditures.
Regular instruction decreased by 15 percent from $3,926,988.74 in 2014-2015 to $3,318,891.16 in 2015-2016. School administration decreased by 24 percent from $584,993.57 in 2014-2015 to $443,852.57 in 2015-2016. The decreases were largely due to a reduction in personnel in the school department’s transition to a two-school district.
The 2015-2016 budget for school administration covers the cost for one principal for kindergarten through sixth grade and one principal and one vice principal for grades seven through 12.
A resident asked about union negotiations with teachers, which are still ongoing, interim Superintendent Lyford Beverage said. According to Wiscasset and RSU 12’s withdrawal agreement, Wiscasset was obligated to abide by RSU 12’s union contract.
Facilities maintenance decreased by 22 percent from $1,235,262.02 in 2014-2015 to $962,307.34 in 2015-2016, due to the closure of the primary school. Total other expenditures, which primarily cover the cost of food service, decreased by 54 percent from $175,865 in 2014-2015 to $80,650 in 2015-2016.
Student and staff support was one of the few cost centers to increase from the previous year, from $793,982.15 in 2014-2015 to $826,969.18 in 2015-2016. The increase was due to a request to provide iPads to grades K to 6 and due to a change in accounting methods, school officials said.
Three residents voted in opposition to the increase, but the cost center was overwhelmingly approved. The total proposed budget of $8,426,886.08 was also overwhelmingly approved with only one vote in opposition.
Two articles separate from the overall budget were added to the warrant to enable the town to weigh in on the expenditures and collectively decide if they should be added to the budget.
The warrant included an article asking for an additional appropriation of $33,692.51 for playground upgrades beyond what was already included in the budget.
The warrant article was strongly supported by those in attendance and passed, with no discussion, 33-9.
“I’m excited,” said Chelsea Haggett, a school committee and playground committee member. “This puts us in the best shape to create a space that will benefit the whole town.”
The $100,000 appropriation to construct a STEM lab at the high school generated the most discussion at the special town meeting, with many supporting the concept of the STEM lab but questioning if now was the right time to introduce it.
School committee member Glen Craig joined the residents in attendance in questioning the STEM lab and its planned implementation. Committee Chair Steve Smith said the school committee wanted to build the STEM lab at the high school to increase the employment opportunities of Wiscasset High School graduates and to become a leader in the state in STEM education.
According to Beverage, the $100,000 was an estimate given from a private contractor, however, no official proposal for the construction of the STEM lab had been received yet.
The warrant article was ultimately defeated, 25-17.
“I’m excited the budget passed,” Smith said. “I wish there was a bigger turnout so more people could give their input. I am upset the STEM lab didn’t pass though. We’ll work on it for next year, but I don’t know if it will pass then.”
According to Smith, there will be increased pressure to reduce the budget for 2016-2017 and it will be harder to find savings.
Wiscasset High School Principal Cheri Towle said she was pleased with the overall budget and okay with the STEM lab vote. According to Towle, the two new classes introduced to the curriculum in anticipation of the STEM lab, a STEM introductory course and an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle course, will still be offered in the 2015-2016 school year.
The total school department budget for 2015-2016, including the additional appropriation for the playground, is $8,460,578.59. The school department projects it will have $2,817,968 in revenue for 2015-2016 from surplus, tuition, and state subsidy.
The total cost to Wiscasset taxpayers is approximately $5,642,610.59, including the appropriation for the playground. While a decrease from the previous year, a resident pointed out the education costs are still an increase from Wiscasset’s contribution to RSU 12 prior to the town’s withdrawal.
Wiscasset’s local contribution to RSU 12 was $5,084,776 in 2012-2013 and $5,199,559 for 2013-2014, according to Wiscasset’s annual town reports.
“The only surprise would be if we got questions that weren’t difficult to answer,” Beverage said in an interview prior to the budget meeting. “The administrative team worked diligently to be responsible in the budget and find savings without curtailing programs. They were remarkable.”