News Feature

Originally published in Castine Patriot, May 18, 2023
Castine annual town meeting approves school and town budgets
Democracy on display

Castine town meeting

Brooke and Gil Tenney join their fellow citizens in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at Town Meeting on May 13.

Photo by David Avery Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by David Avery

On Saturday, May 13, more than 100 voters and others turned out for an annual exercise in direct democracy. Town Meeting began at 8:30 a.m. upstairs at Emerson Hall on Court Street.

Most articles on the school and municipal warrants required only a voice vote, and all of those passed unanimously. The few votes requiring a written ballot passed by overwhelming majorities.

Robin Mass moderated the meeting which adjourned by about 10:40 a.m. Adams School students sold baked goods and drinks during the morning event.

The most contentious issue of the day was the request for supplemental tuition from George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, the semi-private high school that a majority of Castine students attend.

For the second year in a row, the town academy is asking residents of sending towns to pay an extra $1,700 per pupil. Castine’s cost for an estimated 18 students is $30,600.

The school board did not include the total in the calculated budget presented in the school warrant. Instead, as it did last year, the board elected to allow voters to have a say on this issue separately from the rest of the budget.

Several of those present raised questions or made points regarding the supplemental tuition request.

Shelley Jackson, the interim head of GSA, who is not a Castine resident and so had to be approved to speak by a majority of voters, spoke up to thank the town for its past support and expressed hope that GSA would receive support again this year.

Resident Jacob Simmons appealed to his fellow citizens that if the town did not support the supplemental tuition, the cost would very likely fall on families.

School board member Johanna Barrett told the audience that parents have choices other than GSA. She reminded those assembled that GSA is $900,000 in debt and is in the midst of restructuring and cutting expenses.

Historically, GSA has not been transparent about finances, she added, suggesting that this will not be the last time the academy asks for extra money from sending towns.

When asked if the school board was recommending against supporting the supplemental tuition as described in school warrant Article 18, Barrett would not go that far. It is up to taxpayers, she said.

The school board does routinely make recommendations on articles and did so in favor of every other article on the warrant.

Zoe Tenney, a GSA trustee, also addressed the audience and said that the school would rather not be asking for this increase, but doing so was necessary. She also said that the state-established tuition at town academies like GSA was just too low.

Upon request, School Union 93 Superintendent Reg Ruhlin outlined the per-pupil costs at area high schools to put GSA’s request into perspective. The state average is $12,559 per student per year, he said. Ellsworth is $12,169, Bucksport $10,451, Deer Isle-Stonington $12,559 and GSA $13,312.

In the end, Article 18 passed by written ballot 76-17, and the entire school budget of more than $1.821 million passed unanimously.

Including the extra $30,600 for the GSA supplemental tuition, the 2023-24 budget increased by almost 10 percent over the previous year.

Costs were up in almost all areas, according to the school warrant. There were, however a few areas where costs are budgeted to decrease.

Foremost was the cost of transportation, which is being reduced by the acquisition of an electric school bus funded by a federal grant. As a result, the school board recommended—and voters approved—moving $15,000 out of the school bus reserve account to pay for interior maintenance in the form of floor refinishing at Adams School.

Town warrant

All town articles passed unanimously by voice vote, too, most with little to no discussion. The overall town budget is up by about 10 percent at $2.729 million over $2.482 million in the fiscal year ending in 2023.

Article 46 established a new fund to maintain the town dock building leased as a summer takeout joint. The new fund will set aside the lease payments of $4,000 per year for this purpose.

Select board member Colin Powell addressed the audience to explain that Articles 59 and 60 may need to be revisited in the future at a special town meeting.

The articles, which were approved, asked the voters to spend the American Rescue Plan Act funds on a grant writer and on sidewalk improvements.

“There’s a chance we won’t be able to spend it on a grant writer and sidewalks” due to shifting interpretation of federal spending requirements, he said.