Madawaska School Committee calls emergency meeting to act on budget

Posted Dec. 11, 2012, at 5:32 p.m.

MADAWASKA, Maine — The Madawaska School Committee has called an emergency meeting for 4 p.m. Wednesday to act on its budget, which voters have mandated be reduced by more than a half-million dollars.

A period of public participation will precede the meeting, which is currently scheduled for the superintendent’s conference room at the municipal center, although a large turnout at the Nov. 29 emergency school committee meeting forced members to move it to the high school to accommodate the more than 200 attendees.

The delay in passing a school budget — something normally done by Madawaska voters in late summer — is creating some administrative headaches for the municipality.

“Our tax bills normally go out to residents in September,” Christina Therrien, Madawaska town manager, said Tuesday. Residents normally have until March to pay their taxes before penalties are assigned, but Therrien said many residents, for personal tax purposes, like to pay before the end of the year.

“I am sure we would have people paying their taxes now if they had their bills,” she said.

In fact, Therrien is inviting residents to pay their taxes now, based on what they paid last year, a move which would help the municipality save some money.

“Until people pay taxes, we have to keep borrowing money to run the town,” she said. “Getting the tax revenue means less borrowing and less interest we need to pay.”

Last month, voters rejected the proposed school budget, which included a $275,000 increase fromthe previous year. The residents mandated that the school committee reduce the proposed budget by $525,000 before presenting it to voters again. Those same voters approved a municipal budget that reflected $250,000 in cuts from the previous year.

Since then, committee members have met with members of the teachers’ negotiating team in an effort to reach a compromise on cuts to teacher salaries as a way to make up at least part of the shortfall.

Cutting or eliminating academic programs, extracurricular activities and athletics have also been discussed, in addition to reduction in administrative and hourly salaries, furlough days and shortening the school year.

Last week after a five-hour meeting with the school department’s negotiating committee, the teachers’ association agreed to reopen its collective bargaining agreement and reportedly offered to accept reducing salaries by 5 percent in a three-year period.

During the subsequent school committee meeting later that day, however, the committee proposed a 9.45 percent teacher-salary reduction.

The committee has since backed off from that proposal after being warned by counsel from the Maine Education Association that the move could represent bad-faith negotiations on the committee’s part and potentially open the school department up to litigation.

As of the end of last week, both sides were hoping to schedule a meeting to possibly reopen the salary talks.

Though municipal operations are separate from the school department, Town Manager Therrien said Tuesday that her office is ready to step in and help, if asked.

“I can lend assistance to them and try to help,” she said. “They have their own committee and a superintendent, [and] it is really up to them to come up with a workable plan, [but] we are ready to help.”

Calls to the superintendent’s office Tuesday afternoon were not immediately returned.

The need for the budget cutbacks was prompted by property tax abatements granted to Twin Rivers Paper Co., reducing its valuation from $170 million to $85 million during a four-year period beginning in fiscal year 2010.

“Ultimately, we are concerned because this is our community’s school,” Therrien said. “As a municipality as a whole, the [town] board of selectmen and myself are always concerned with the education of our children and for the taxpayers.”

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