Calais council to vote on $8.3 million school budget Thursday

Posted Aug. 05, 2013, at 6:23 p.m.

CALAIS, Maine — The City Council will hold its second special meeting on Thursday in order to try to adopt a budget for its fledgling school system.

This time, however, it appears the $8.3 million budget proposed by the council has a good chance of passing when the council convenes Thursday night.

A motion to adopt the budget resulted in a 3-3 vote during a special meeting on Thursday of last week, so it failed to win approval. Mayor Marianne Moore was joined by Councilors Alan Dwelley and Tom Parks in voting to adopt the proposed budget; Councilors Bill Howard, Art Mingo, and Anne Nixon voted against it.

Councilor Chris Bernardini was absent for last week’s meeting, but he said Monday he would vote in favor of the proposed budget at this week’s special session. If the three who voted for it previously support it once again, the proposed budget would pass with a majority vote.

The proposed budget would still have to go before Calais voters in a referendum later this month, possibly Aug. 29, according to Moore.

The School Committee recommended a budget of $8.8 million. The City Council trimmed that earlier to $8.3 million, but voters shot it down, 238-55, in a referendum July 9.

The council’s latest recommendation is $50,000 more than what voters rejected last month, Moore said.

In addition, the council voted in July to increase the mill rate by $2 per $1,000 property tax valuation in order to generate more revenue for its junior-senior high school and elementary school. The increase will generate about $300,000 in new revenue.

The council’s recommended school budget is $340,000 more than what the city appropriated for schools in the previous year, Bernardini said. That figure includes capital improvement budget items of $50,000 for maintenance and $40,000 for textbooks.

The City Council and the School Committee need to get the budget information into the hands of voters in a way that is readily understandable, Bernardini said.

In explaining his vote against the proposed school budget, Howard said Calais schools have been shortchanged in recent years. In addition, expenses have been rising due to the federal No Child Left Behind program, unfunded state mandates and skyrocketing health insurance premiums, Howard said — costs that are “out of our control.”

“Someone’s got to give in somewhere,” Howard said. “We can’t keep raising taxes.” The School Committee will have to cut spending, he suggested. The difference between the School Committee’s recommended budget and that now under consideration by the City Council is $420,266.

Howard pointed to the rising cost of health insurance and said, “It’s putting huge burdens on these small towns.”

Councilor Nixon was of a similar view. “The city needs to allocate more money for schools,” she said.

Calais previously was a member of an Alternative Organizational Structure, or AOS, for school services, but it withdrew from the regional entity effective at the end of the 2012-13 school year.

“We were paying 37 percent of the cost of the AOS and not getting 37 percent of the services,” Moore said.

The decision to operate its own school system was not perfect, Howard said. The city hired a consultant who determined that it would cost Calais about $80,000 to pull out of the AOS and operate its schools. “It turned out to be $160,000,” he said.

Raymond Freve initially was tapped as a consultant for the city’s school system and now is functioning as a temporary, interim superintendent.

Freve and School Committee chairman James McDonald could not be reached for comment.

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