BANGOR, Maine — The Bangor City Council approved a $42 million school budget, less than a half a percent increase over last year’s total, during a special meeting Monday night.
The budget, which voters will weigh in on at the polls during the June 18 election, is “bare-bones” in a year when neither the school system nor city know for sure what severe fiscal challenges they might face when the state passes its own budget, according to school Superintendent Betsy Webb.
Councilor Pauline Civiello proposed an amendment that would have directed the school board to reduce its budget by $120,000, suggesting the school department not put that amount in its contingency fund, which currently sits at about $250,000. A $120,000 reduction would cut about 5 cents from the mill rate in a budget year where it’s likely the city’s residents will see a dramatic jump in taxes, she said.
Civiello argued that the council needed to be responsible and prove to taxpayers that the city is working at all levels to minimize the impact of this budget on Bangor residents’ wallets.
“The time has come that we are looking at not being able to provide certain city services,” Councilor Susan Hawes said in supporting the reduction. “If we can band together and keep the tax rate down, we are all obligated to do that.”
Webb said the contingency fund was necessary because it’s likely the school district will experience some unexpected expenses in the coming year. She cited the situation at Downeast School last year, when the school district had to purchase a portable classroom and hire an extra teacher because of an unexpected increase in the number of students. There’s also a chance that one of the system’s aging buildings will need an emergency repair.
Councilor James Gallant said he understood that the school committee had passed a
“bare-bones budget,” but that every department in the city was being asked to make cuts in an attempt to minimize the effect of this year’s budget on Bangor taxpayers.
“At the end of the day, it’s about teamwork,” Gallant said. The city recently directed the Bangor Public Library, Hammond Street Senior Center and the Commission for Cultural Development to chop 12 percent from their budgets.
Civiello’s motion failed in a 3-5 vote, with Civiello, Hawes and Councilor James Gallant voting in favor of the reduction. Councilor Charlie Longo was not at the meeting.
The school system’s budget then passed in 6-2 vote, with Civiello and Hawes voting against it.
In other business, the council passed a resolution in opposition to charter schools and calling on the state to conduct a full review of its charter school laws. The council said it would request a meeting with Gov. Paul LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen to discuss its concerns. The motion was unanimous, and a committee will discuss in coming weeks whether the city should establish a moratorium on charter schools.
A state commission earlier this year rejected a charter school application by Queen City Academy in Bangor. Webb attended a council committee meeting in May, during which she and councilors shared concerns about what effect a charter school might have on the city.
Councilor Joe Baldacci argued that charter schools could have “devastating impacts on local education” because they would force the redistribution of tax dollars away from public education. He also questioned whether charter schools would receive appropriate oversight, as they are run by boards appointed by the entity that operates the school, rather than by voters.
“Without duly elected representatives, taxpayers who fund the school are denied from having any input in how the school is operated or funded,” he said.
Councilor David Nealley said he supports the concept of charter schools, but mostly in large cities where public school systems struggle with problems of violence and underachievement. Bangor’s schools have neither of those problems, he said.
Also on Monday night, the council’s Government Operations Committee recommended approval of a $1.8 million airport project to fill in a drainage canal that is a frequent rest stop for ducks and flocks of other birds. The project would be awarded to Sargent Corp., the lowest bidder on the project.
The water in the canal attracts birds, presenting a hazard for planes taking off and landing at the airport, according to Airport Director Tony Caruso. The airport has tried several times to remove the ducks, including an effort in 2009 after a US Airways flight was forced to land in the Hudson River in New York City after striking a flock of birds during takeoff.
The airport expects the ducks will move to a different location after the canal is gone. The project will be funded by 90 percent federal funds, 5 percent state funds, and 5 percent from the airport. The city council will have to approve the contract, as it is in excess of $100,000.