District FY25 Proposed Budget Hearing: Different Visions of the Future


More than 100 individuals gathered on Tuesday for a school committee public hearing at Essex Elementary School and online to discuss the ME Regional School District’s proposed FY25 budget, which faces significant challenges before finalization this spring, sparking debates on apportionment formulas, reserve funds, cost-cutting, and scholastic performance.

Despite the heated discussions among Finance Committees, Select Boards, teachers, students, and residents, the evening remained relatively subdued.  Comments echoed familiar refrains, with some advocating for maintaining service levels and others opposing budget increases, citing concerns about the affordability of school district funding.

Ann Harrison, Manchester’s Select Board chair and former ME Regional School Committee member, said that in 20 years since regionalization, she has never seen the working relationship between Essex and Manchester deteriorate to this extent. 

The towns’ fundamental relationship posture is now more challenging than ever.  Essex officials, while not echoing Harrison’s message, nevertheless emphasized their position that the district’s FY25 budget should not exceed a 2.5% increase from the previous year.  Essex FinCom member Jody Harris said Essex has only $365K to avoid a Proposition 2½ override this year, with no excess capacity to fall back on.  Essex BOS Chair Ruth Pereen agreed, saying at the hearing that her board affirmed this stance, highlighting the town’s financial constraints and limited capacity for an override.

The recommended FY25 district budget stands at $30.258 million, representing a 3.42% increase from the previous year.  This “level services” budget maintains staffing and service levels from FY24.  Personnel costs constitute the largest portion at $18.861 million, reflecting a 3.41% rise, while operating expenses have increased by 4.21% ($480K) from FY24.  Anticipated School Choice revenue of $500K aims to offset operating expenses by accepting 20 more out-of-district students in the 2024-2025 school year.

The crux of the debate lies in apportionment, determining each town’s share of the budget.  The tentative budget proposes a 3.45% ($878K) increase in assessments for Manchester and Essex, leading to a 5.31% ($501K) increase for Essex and a 2.35% ($377K) increase for Manchester.  The funding disparity results from Essex’s stable population and Manchester’s 3% decline in student numbers.

In addition to the recommended budget, two alternative scenarios were presented: a lower 2.5% increase with program cuts and a higher 4% increase with program enhancements.  Advocates for the recommended budget argue that it aligns with similar-sized
districts in the state, emphasizing the need for a financial reset.

Healthcare insurance premiums for district employees and retirees present an “X factor” in the budget proposal.  Conservatively estimated at a 14.5% increase, a lower rate in March could positively impact the budget.  The Essex FinCom hopes for a significant drop in insurance premiums to avoid a Proposition 2½ override
this year, acknowledging the challenge of facing similar situations in the following years.

Residents and School Committee members express divergent opinions, with some supporting increased investment in the district and others advocating for budget constraints.  Concerns arise about program cuts, with community members like Rob Billsbury (an Essex resident, parent and ME high school teacher) and students like Wyeth Takayesu, Jack Cummins, and August Capatasto sharing personal experiences of the impact of previous cuts on education programs. Essex, having failed to pass a Proposition 2½ override last year, insists on a 2.5% budget increase to avoid further financial strain.  Manchester, on the other hand, supports at least a higher “level services” budget.

The debate extends to the broader community, with residents like Katie Vandi emphasizing the financial challenges families face and urging creative solutions like leveraging volunteers or clubs to fill the program gap.  Offering some levity in the evening, Vandi said she appreciated the challenge facing the school committee.

“I’d still rather pick weeds on a July day than try to solve the problems facing you all,” Vandi said. 

Lindsay Torres Banks, a parent in Manchester, argues that more voters across both towns supported the higher “investment” district budget.

“We cannot run the district on volunteers and clubs,” Banks said.

Sarah Stone, a resident of Manchester and a 7th-grade teacher, draws attention to the importance of early reading intervention and criticizes potential cuts to teaching assistants.  She pointed to a Boston Globe in-depth story on school systems in wealthy Massachusetts districts that refuse to embrace research showing that focused, early reading intervention at the elementary school level can dramatically impact high school performance and cost efficiencies throughout the district years later.  A cost-cutting view that looks to clip teaching assistants at Memorial or Essex Elementary, she said, may satisfy budget hawks in the short term but is foolish in the long term.

The fear looms that if the FY25 budget fails, both towns may face a “Super Town Meeting,” where the larger population of Manchester could potentially force approval on the smaller town, a scenario Essex officials consider devastating.

Proposed FY25 MERSD Budget Highlights

  • Personnel levels are flat, with no added positions or reductions in staff.
  • A 2.5% cost‐of‐living adjustment (COLA) is included for employees not in the Manchester Essex Teachers Association (META), including Teaching Assistants, for whom an initial contract is incomplete. In the META category, a 2.25% COLA combined with the impact of step and anticipated column moves yields an estimated growth of 4.0%.  Stipends in the META contract are budgeted with 0% growth.  
  • Healthcare insurance is assumed at a 14.5% increase, with actuals expected in February or March.
  • MERSD plans to use $150K from its retiree benefits (OPEB) trust account, which totaled $4.8 million as of June 30, to offset retiree health insurance costs.
  • Based on an updated analysis of individual student placements, the out‐of‐district (OOD) tuition category is up 4.8% or $54K.
  • Cost of maintenance is up 4.6% or $40K due to aging buildings, particularly at the Essex Elementary School and the ME Middle High School.
  • Cost of utilities/energy has ebbed slightly by $20K or 2.5% in FY25.

The next MERSD FY25 budget meeting is 6 p.m. Tuesday, February 6 at the ME Regional High School.