It’s Go Time For MERSD Budget Finalization


Next week the ME Regional School District will start making hard decisions on its final FY23 operating budget, as Essex and MBTS look to finalize their own budgets for voters at this spring’s Annual Town Meetings, set for April and May.  

“We are in the middle of a very difficult budget situation that will undoubtedly affect your children,” said Sarah Wolf, School Committee chair at last meeting’s 200+ attendees.  “I believe with all my heart that our towns benefit from having strong public schools. … We have a massive budget challenge.”

The challenge Wolf described is one in which the district has met the longtime goal, agreed to both towns of delivering a capped budget with a 3.5% increase from last year.  But because Essex’s share of the district budget has ballooned for the third year in a row, the district is being pressed to lower the budget further so Essex’s apportionment falls in line with last year (up 3.96%) forcing the district to lower its budget further.  

At its last meeting, options to meet that request became real to parents, staff and the community.

Currently the FY23 budget is at $28.85 million, which falls just under the 3.5% goal but drafts presented in January still represents up to a 4.97% increase for Essex’s apportionment (Manchester’s share was under 2%).  

Essex is looking for the district to close a $275K gap after the district uses reserves to soften the hit.  The difference came in cuts to programs, specifically scenarios that would cut deferred maintenance to athletic fields (which supporters say is a safety issue), elementary school foreign language program, and music classes (making them fee-based services).  Parents and teachers and students spoke one after the other, begging the district to retain the programs.

“It’s sad we have to fight for level services,” said Committee member Theresa Whitman.

District apportionment is based on three factors, the biggest of which is each town’s student enrollment.  Essex’s share has increased because Manchester’s share of district students is dropping while Essex’s student population is growing nominally.  This trend is expected to continue for at least another two years, Essex FinCom chair Ben Buttrick said in a meeting last week.  

Apart from the apportionment formula’s impact on town budgets, all acknowledge an underlying, structural challenge with district budgeting challenges that peak every seven or so years.  Trimming the budget every year to meet its goal adds up, and sometimes the district benefits from naturally occurring reductions, like a retiring teacher.  But mostly the administration has to absorb unexpected expenses, like a surprise 28% increase in health insurance (2018) or unexpected spikes in special education-related costs.

Since FY 18, the district has made tough cuts totaling nearly $2.792 million, including eliminating 5.5 full time teachers, cuts in curriculum, eliminating full day pre-K on Wednesdays, retirement offsets, eliminating the crossing guard fund, eliminating half of summer and overtime work, and implementing an across the board hiring freeze, among others.

“I think everyone understands the challenge. It’s a difficult solve. There’s no silver bullet,” said Buttrick.  This statement from the FinCom represents tremendous progress in cooperation, considering it was just last year that the Essex FinCom publicly broke from the BOS at Town Meeting and asked voters not to support the district’s FY22 budget.  (Voters did vote for the budget.)  All agree that a budget override will be needed in Spring 2023 to address the fundamental issues.  

Essex representatives say the chance of a successful override in FY24 will be improved if, at the upcoming Town Meeting in May, it is clear the district and the town have worked collaboratively to make good on the reduction of this year’s Essex district share. 

The next joint Essex BOS/FinCom meeting is 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 28, with the FinCom meeting beforehand, 7 p.m.  Then, on Tuesday, March 1, the School Committee will meet at 6 p.m.

ben buttrick, sarah wolf, theresa whitman, me regional school district