Millinocket officials, superintendent clash on eve of school budget vote

Posted Aug. 19, 2013, at 6:51 p.m.

MILLINOCKET, Maine — Town Council Chairman John Davis criticized the school superintendent Monday for promising school workers that layoffs would occur if voters approved the proposed education budget.

Davis said Superintendent Kenneth Smith “relates a very polluted version of the truth” when Smith wrote in an email to all employees on Thursday that the school board “will be forced to make significant reductions, including personnel and programs” if the budget passes in the validation vote occurring Tuesday.

“The Town Council is stating that further cuts will not adversely affect education, but that is not true. If the voters approve the budget they are presenting, it will mean the elimination of teaching positions and some programs,” Smith wrote in an email encouraging school workers to reject the budget.

The school budget, Davis said, can be cut further without imperiling any large number of positions. He saw no more than a part-time teacher’s position and a janitor’s position or two being cut.

Millinocket School Committee members can also avoid layoffs by negotiating reductions with the teachers union or the retired school employees that would save the $322,000 councilors cut from the school budget about two weeks ago.

“There are other cuts that they could make or they could make a serious attempt to talk to these people and start reducing and eventually do away with the retirees’ insurance just like the town did,” Davis said.

In an email in response to Smith’s, school board member Matthew Farrington questioned how a similar postal mailing went to parents with a spending freeze in place. He also doubted that layoffs would be necessary.

“There are places to cut without the loss of jobs I believe, or with minimal job loss without hurting the children’s education,” Farrington wrote.

With the town’s economy, population and portion of state revenue-sharing all declining, councilors and school committee members have clashed over proposed budgets annually for at least the last four years in efforts to keep taxes low while providing the best possible education for town students.

Since budget season began, the municipal budget dropped from $6.7 million to $6 million and the school budget fell from $6.57 million to $6.3 million, officials have said. The town and school budgets for the 2013-14 budget year, which began July 1, are now lower than they were the previous year, but state revenue-sharing cuts leave taxpayers paying more property taxes.

This year, the largest dispute centers on a council proposal to cut $324,000 from the school department’s retiree benefits account — a move that Kevin Gregory, the school committee’s chairman, angrily opposes as unfair to retirees.

Town Council members approved the $324,000 cut as part of reductions totaling slightly more than $1 million from the town and school budgets on Aug. 6. The cutting, they said, is an integral part to their effort to keep taxes at 29.5 mills, up from the 26.4 mill rate in the budget that lapsed June 30.

But voters again rejected the school budget after that cut occurred. Since the last referendum vote, the school board cut the budget $111,000, Smith said, leaving the proposal about $63,000 less than previous years.

“Those cuts will have an impact on school maintenance, transportation, libraries and school supplies but they will not require laying off employees,” Smith wrote.

Davis said Smith inflates some of his estimates to make the cuts seem larger than they actually are. With the $324,000, the mill rate will rise to about 31 mills, Davis said.

At 26.4 mills, owners of $50,000 properties pay $1,320 annually. At 29.5 mills, they would pay $1,475; at 31 mills, $1,550.

The vote will occur at Stearns High School from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, and the council will meet on Thursday to discuss the vote and the budget.

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