FORT KENT, Maine — Voters in SAD 27 go to the polls twice this week thanks to a move to hold the school district’s annual budget referendum separately from the state primary elections.
The school budget vote is slated for Thursday, June 10.
The decision by the school board to hold a separate referendum grew out of a majority of members’ concerns that heavy voter turnout for Tuesday’s primary could jeopardize the proposed $11,569,900 total budget, including the $3,998,663 local share raised and appropriated by member towns. SAD 27 serves Eagle Lake, Fort Kent, New Canada, St. Francis, St. John Plantation, Wallagrass and Winterville.
“Several board members were fearful holding the budget vote the same day [as the primaries] would mean the budget would get voted down,” Dr. Patrick O’Neill, district superintendent, said Monday. “I know some board members and town officials are unhappy with that.”
Among them is Louis Moreau, chair of the Fort Kent Town Council.
“The intent is obviously to cut down on the number of voters at the polls,” Moreau said. “Not only will a separate vote create an additional cost to the towns, but it would have been more beneficial to the voters if both votes were on the same day.”
In Fort Kent, those additional costs come to around $500, according to Don Guimond, town manager.
James O’Malley, SAD 27 board of directors chairman, said it is not the intent of the board to circumvent any democratic process.
Rather, he said, members wanted to ensure that residents who care and are informed decide the budget.
“We recognize it can be an inconvenience to have two votes,” O’Malley said. “But we like the idea that if people are concerned about the school budget and interested in it they will come out and vote.”
What some board members did fear, he said, was any backlash against a proposed district budget stemming from state referendum questions.
“If people are dissatisfied with the [state] referendum questions, that momentum can be carried over to the school budget,” O’Malley said. “But if people make the effort to go out and vote on the budget, it shows they are really concerned, [and] we want to be sure it is the people most concerned with the budget who come to vote.”
Moreau pointed out that this is the second year in a row the school board has opted to hold the budget referendum separate from the June primary.
“I voiced my concern about that to Dr. O’Neill last year,” Moreau said. “I am concerned it’s happening again [and] there is no need for that.”
Individual budget articles were addressed at the district’s budget meeting on May 26. But under the state’s school consolidation law, the overall budget must go to referendum for final approval.
Included in the proposed budget for the SAD 27 2011 fiscal year that starts on July 1, 2010, is $4,431,082 for regular instruction, $1,504,684 for special education, $1,044,942 for student and staff support, $505,613 for transportation and $1,295,112 for facilities maintenance.
Should the school budget pass as presented, Guimond said Fort Kent property owners could be looking at a 1.5 to 2 mill increase, depending on this year’s property valuation results.
“This would be the largest increase in 17 years,” Guimond said.
In March, Fort Kent voters approved a municipal budget for the coming fiscal year that represents an estimated 1.5 mill increase over the current property tax rate of $14.35 per $1,000 in property value. Guimond said at the time that municipal expenses had been kept relatively flat but that revenues were down and causing the tax increase.
O’Neill said Monday that the proposed school budget was actually lower than last year, but that a reduction in state subsidies for local education was primarily to blame for increased local costs.
“Overall the budget looks pretty good [and] is lower than last year,” he said. “We have taken all kinds of measures to get where we are.”
For instance, the administration announced in February that 17 district employees would be let go at the end of this school year.
“These layoffs were across the board and included teachers, part-time employees and bus drivers,” O’Neill said. “By doing that we were able to offset $250,000 to get to this year’s budget.”
Moreau said the school board did not go far enough, noting that as far back as 2001 an independent committee recommended that the district look at closing some of its school buildings entirely to save funds.
“Nothing has been done about that,” Moreau said. “They have consolidated some services but not to that point where it would have saved some of the increases to the taxpayers.”
O’Neill is pessimistic about the next budgetary cycle.
“We are still looking at a gloomy future,” he said. “It’s looking like we are facing a $350,000 shortfall” for the next fiscal year that starts July 1, 2011.
This year, O’Neill noted, the board was able to include $184,000 in federal stimulus funds to help ease the shortfall.
“That money will not be there next year,” he said.
“This year’s budget is probably as dramatic a budget as the system has seen in its history [and] next year will be worse,” O’Neill said. “The education commissioner had said it is ‘like we are coming to a cliff.’ Well, next year we fall off.”
In an attempt to get a jump-start on the next budget, O’Neill said a districtwide planning group would begin meeting this August “to see how we can start digging out of this.”
Pooling resources with other districts and increased use of electronic classrooms are among the items up for discussion.
“We have to change the way we do business,” O’Neill said.