Millinocket to vote on thorny school budget

Posted June 07, 2010, at 11:22 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:33 a.m.

MILLINOCKET, Maine — Residents will vote today on a proposed $6.98 million school budget that school and town officials have been unable to agree upon.

Against the Millinocket School Committee’s recommendation, the Town Council cut the committee’s proposed $7.23 million budget by $305,128 on June 2.

The council’s cut was so unusual that Superintendent Sara Alberts said that for the first time in her more than 20-year career, she issued a flier addressed to voters urging them to reject a school budget that she said “sends teaching and learning backwards in time,” according to a copy of it released Monday.

“I understand the needs of the town’s economy but they [town schools] also need to educate the children of the town appropriately. This budget won’t allow that to occur,” Alberts said Monday.

In a June 1 memo to councilors, Town Manager Eugene Conlogue said he recommended the $305,128 in cuts with guidance mostly “general in nature and not specific” from Alberts, several school board members and councilors.

Councilors directed him to make the cuts after the school board failed to comply with a council directive to propose a budget that would keep property taxes stable, he said.

“In difficult times and with declining school enrollments, these are some of the things you sometimes have to do,” Conlogue said.

Councilors approved the school budget in 31 motions by 4-2 and 6-0, Deputy Town Clerk Erica Porter said. Councilor Jimmy Busque was absent.

Conlogue said in the memo that under the town charter, councilors can change the school board “by functional area, but [they] may not specify individual [budget] lines within such areas for adjustment. Only the school board is empowered to make those reductions after a budget is adopted by the council.”

That means while he suggested cuts that would eliminate 3½ positions — an assistant principal, teacher, school secretary and a half-time special education teacher — school board members can retain those positions by finding other savings, Conlogue said.

Alberts doubted more savings were likely.

The school board’s proposed 2010-11 budget is $281,900 less than the approved $7.53 million budget for 2009-10, but would have increased town property taxes from $3.93 million to $4.23 million, Conlogue said.

In the flier, Alberts said Conlogue’s cuts would end Stearns High School’s accreditation, eliminate some required special education programs and the school board’s ability to meet some contractual obligations, among other things.

Conlogue said the cuts might put Stearns on a watch list compiled by the accreditation agency.

“The school is not in danger of losing its accreditation because of these changes,” he said.

Nor would special education programs be cut, he said.

Conlogue said the concern over budgets and property tax levels is tied to school enrollment, which has decreased by more than 45 percent since the 1999-2000 school year. The school system’s enrollment this year, 589.5 students, is 17 percent, or 117 students, fewer than four years ago.

The school budget vote occurs at Stearns from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. today.

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