Calais council struggles with school funding

Posted Sept. 04, 2013, at 3:03 p.m.

CALAIS, Maine — The City Council held a special, at times contentious meeting on Tuesday night in an effort to adopt a new school budget.

When the dust cleared, the panel had freed up an additional $40,000 for the city’s school system.

In addition, the council agreed to have City Manager Diane Barnes confer with department heads to review their budgets for capital projects to see what additional monies may be diverted for schools. The council will hold another special session Sept. 10 to hear her recommendations.

Voters already have rejected the city’s proposed school budget in two referendums. The School Committee most recently adopted a budget of $8.8 million, but the City Council trimmed that to $8.3 million. The proposed school budget that was defeated Aug. 27 included $1.4 million in local funds, about $251,000 more compared with the previous school year. City Councilors earlier this year approved an increase in the mill rate, with most of the new revenue going for schools.

Last week, the School Committee pared about $81,000 in spending, but additional recommendations by interim superintendent Raymond Freve still loom, including the elimination of a few positions and possible furlough days.

About 40 people attended Tuesday night’s special session, which was held in the fire hall adjoining the municipal building. The room was nearly filled. The audience included members of the School Committee, educators and parents.

Councilor Anne Nixon led the debate and offered suggestions to allocate additional funds for schools. At times she also kept up a running commentary on remarks by other councilors.

Nixon referred to the handful of pending personnel cuts the School Committee may be faced with making and said, “We have to do something. We have to make this work.”

Nixon suggested the council scrutinize capital improvement budgets and see what can be freed up for schools. “Why can’t we take some of that money?” she asked.

The School Committee was elected to deal with the school system’s problems, responded Councilor Chris Bernardini. “They’re going to get $8.3 million,” he declared.

“I don’t get that,” countered Nixon.

“In the end, it all falls to the council,” said Councilor Billy Howard.

When the council was preparing to raise taxes earlier this year, people were told that 100 percent of the additional revenue would go for schools, said an unidentified woman in the audience. However, the schools wound up getting about 85 percent, she noted, calling it “very deceiving.”

“It was a dynamic situation,” said Councilor Alan Dwelley, “and some of that stuff changed.”

“We never said they were getting 100 percent of the 2 mill increase,” added Barnes.

“That’s what I heard,” interjected Nixon.

At times the discussion veered into comments from councilors and audience members about per-pupil education costs for Calais and other, similar small cities; the state formula used to determine aid for education; reduced state revenue sharing for local governments; personnel cuts at other school systems; and the city’s municipal budget. At one point, School Committee member John Hill suggested the school budget shortfall be split evenly between the school system and the city’s municipal budget. He got no takers on his proposal.

“We need to adopt a budget so the schools can move forward,” said Dwelley, and make additional spending cuts if necessary. “That’s what we need to do, to come together as a community.”

When a member of the audience suggested that the council essentially turn over $90,000 in capital improvement funds — $50,000 earmarked for school maintenance and $40,000 for books — Nixon pounced on the idea. “I’ll make that motion,” she said. It failed for lack of a second, but an alternative proposal by Howard to free up the $40,000 for the School Committee passed by a unanimous vote.

Nixon reviewed capital budget amounts for various departments and proposed diverting those monies for schools — about $125,000. That motion also died for lack of a second.

Bernardini offered a motion to set the school budget at $8,375,000, about $4,800 less than the previous proposed budget. He suggested a slightly lesser amount “to see if anyone bites on it.” Bernardini’s motion prompted Hill to get up and leave in apparent disgust.

“Why does anyone want to bite,” asked School Committee member Kathleen Caso, “on a lesser amount?”

Nixon was livid, calling Bernardini’s proposal “very disrespectful for this city.”

That motion also died a quiet death for lack of a second.

“Unbelievable,” said Nixon.

Barnes asked for time to confer with the department heads to review their capital budgets, and the council agreed and set another special session for next week.

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