The Hermon Town Council and the School Committee appear to be headed for a showdown over the 2022-23 school budget, which is nearly $1 million higher than the current spending plan.
Several councilors expressed concern at a workshop last week that the proposed increase of $979,745, or nearly 10 percent, would raise property taxes on average by about $300 per homeowner.
The proposed budget would add teaching positions at Hermon High School as enrollment in the fast-growing town’s schools has continued to rise.
Council Chair Steve Thomas said he would prefer to see a flat-funded budget given how many residents in Hermon live on fixed incomes and are facing sharp increases in the cost of food, electricity and heating oil over last year.
But newly appointed interim Superintendent Micah Grant, who has been leading the school department since former Superintendent Jim Chasse stepped down in March, told councilors Thursday that the school committee had told him to hold firm at a budget of $17.64 million, an increase of 9.65 percent over last year’s budget.
That amount includes $573,000 for capital improvement projects to be taken from the district’s reserve account, including a new boiler and auditorium roof at the high school, a new well at the elementary school and the removal of a fuel tank at the middle school.
Because the money for those projects would come from the $3.5 million reserve account, which include federal COVID-19 relief funds the school department has received to defray pandemic-related costs, the actual increase to the portion of the budget funded by local property taxes would be 5.4 percent.
The school budget grew by 4.3 percent in the 2020 to 2021 school year and 6.2 percent in the current school year.
The proposed increase includes four new teaching positions with three at the high school, along with negotiated salary increases and benefits for all employees, Grant said. It also includes $90,000 for a new IT position.
That position also raised questions from councilors, as local voters last year approved an audit of the internet system the school district owns. That audit, which passed over the school department’s objections, has not yet been completed.
Grant said last week that upgrades need to be completed before the audit can be done but that it is on track to be completed before the end of the calendar year.
Enrollment in Hermon has been increasing as more families have moved to the Bangor suburb. Enrollment this fall is expected to increase by 25 students at the high school, by one student at the middle school and by 10 students at the elementary school for a total of 1,389.
That number includes students from Levant, Carmel and Glenburn who attend the high school as tuition students. That is an increase of 109 students over the 2018-19 school year.
Grant told the council that without the budget increase, the district would not be able to hire three new teachers at the high school. Without those new positions, he said, the state Department of Education won’t allow the district to increase tuition for towns sending students to the high school from $8,500 per student to the $10,000 per student it costs to actually educate them.
The interim superintendent, who is leading the town’s schools until June 30 after serving as Hermon Middle School’s principal, asked the council on Thursday to vote on an amount by which it wanted the school board to cut the budget.
Thomas declined to do that, saying it would be inappropriate to take such a vote during a work session.
Thomas and at least two other council members expressed support for a budget that would not increase property taxes. Vice Chairp Anthony Reynolds, a former school board member, was the sole councilor to express support for the school budget as proposed.
A public hearing on the municipal and the school budget will be held at 7 p.m. May 26 at the public safety building. At that time, the town council could accept or reject the proposed school budget. The council then could tell the school committee to reduce the budget by a certain amount.
Both budgets are subject to approval by voters at the annual town meeting set for June 16.