Millinocket approves school budget on third try

Millinocket ballot clerks Susan Darnielle [left] and Marie Weatherbee count school ballots as Deputy Election Warden Diana Campbell collects notices from voting booths at Stearns High School on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013.
Millinocket ballot clerks Susan Darnielle [left] and Marie Weatherbee count school ballots as Deputy Election Warden Diana Campbell collects notices from voting booths at Stearns High School on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013. Buy Photo
Posted Aug. 20, 2013, at 9:54 p.m.
Bernadette Friel grabs a handful of ballots from the ballot box at the end of the Millinocket validation vote at Stearns High School on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013.
Bernadette Friel grabs a handful of ballots from the ballot box at the end of the Millinocket validation vote at Stearns High School on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013. Buy Photo

MILLINOCKET, Maine — Voters approved by a nearly 100-vote margin a proposed $6.3 million school budget during a third validation vote Tuesday that was buoyed by an incredible turnout, officials said.

The 640-547 vote represented the will of approximately 36 percent of the town’s registered voters, Town Clerk Roxanne Johnson said — a showing she described as incredible given that it occurred so far from election season.

Town Council Chairman John Davis was pleased that the budget passed, but said he found nothing much to cheer about. As has happened for most of the last decade, the council and school board fought hard over cuts to a budget that were driven by declining state and town revenues, town population and local economy.

“It is hard to have a winner when we have natives fighting natives,” Davis said late Tuesday. “We are going to need their [school board members] help because this [budget] doesn’t come close to solving all of our problems.”

The biggest sticking point in the budget was the council unilaterally imposing a $324,000 cut in the school budget, which had already been pared considerably by years of zero-growth budgeting and substantial school board cuts.

Under the Town Charter, councilors control the budget but the school board delegates where money is spent in the school system. Councilors want the cut to come from medical benefits paid to school system retirees, a notion the school board opposed.

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. Since the last referendum vote, the school board cut the budget $111,000, Superintendent Kenneth Smith said, leaving the proposal about $63,000 less than previous years.

“If the Town Council budget is approved, the School Department will be forced to make significant reductions, including personnel and programs,” Smith wrote in an email to school workers dated Thursday. “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 has not said how many layoffs might occur.

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