Calais council proposes higher school budget, sets new referendum

Posted Sept. 11, 2013, at 12:28 p.m.

CALAIS, Maine — The City Council on Tuesday night held its second special session in two weeks as it wrangled again over funding for schools.

The council trimmed $50,000 from capital spending plans that night in order to free up more money for schools, then adopted a proposed school budget and set a referendum for Sept. 24.

The School Committee is still faced with the prospect of making additional budget cuts for the school year that is already underway.

The referendum will be for voters to approve a proposed school budget of $8,379,000, up $50,000 from the most recent vote with the additional monies the council approved Tuesday evening.

The councilors also agreed to extend voting hours until 8 p.m. to enable more people to vote after work. Per the council’s direction, city officials also will conduct an exit poll to help determine why residents vote yes or no. The city’s voters already have rejected a proposed school budget twice.

The special session — attended by about 100 people in the packed former fire station next to the municipal building, many of them supporters of the school system — began with department heads briefing the council on their capital budgets for the fiscal year, line item by line item.

Those capital projects total $743,875, which includes $116,229 in debt service and $27,622 in a reserve fund. Some line items are not expenditures but represent amounts set aside for future purchases of costly equipment or other projects.

In the end, the council agreed by a 5-3 vote to eliminate $20,000 for a garage for the fire department that also would be used by police and public works, $20,000 for an addition to the public safety building and $10,000 from the reserve account.

At one point councilors wrestled with deeper cuts in the capital budgets. Councilor Anne Nixon proposed reducing capital spending by $66,000. Councilor Art Mingo topped that by urging additional reductions, the combination totaling $131,000.

“That’s better,” quipped Nixon.

However, Mingo’s proposal was defeated by a 4-3 vote.

Before any additional money was approved for schools, newly appointed schools Superintendent Keith Laser told those assembled that the school system’s budget proposal was still short about $333,000. The City Council and the School Committee originally were about $420,000 apart, but the council agreed to release $40,000 in capital funds originally earmarked for textbooks, and the School Committee has made some budget reductions.

“This has been a long road, and we’re going down it together,” said Councilor Chris Bernardini, who proposed resubmitting the same school budget amount that was most recently rejected by voters.

“Let’s just keep doing this,” Nixon retorted.

Bernardini urged the council not to “raid” the funds reserved for capital spending. The School Committee has not proposed a new budget since the last referendum, he noted. He also said that school spending issues that arose last fall were not addressed. If funding for capital projects is reduced, Bernardini argued, the council will be faced with having to raise taxes in the future to pay for them.

Councilor Alan Dwelley agreed, saying that “robbing” capital budgets was not the solution. “It’s foolhardy for us to do that,” he said.

Bernardini’s proposal failed by a 5-2 vote, prompting the audience to erupt in applause.

At one point Nixon asked people in the audience to show by raising hands whether they voted against the last referendum because they viewed the proposed school budget as too low. Virtually everyone raised their hand. The audience included members of the School Committee as well as teachers and school administrators.

“Cuts are coming, this year and next year,” said Councilor Bill Howard. They are inevitable, he suggested.

“We’re spending money that we don’t have,” added Mingo.

Howard said the city is facing the prospect in the future of having to “restructure” its local government and likely eliminate some services.

Bernardini suggested the School Committee look hard at about $80,000 in stipends and benefits paid to coaches. The stipends are added to salary to calculate retirement benefits, he explained. “We’re going to pay twice. That’s one thing. It’s $80,000 … I think that’s a lot of money right there.”

The discussion grew testy at times. At one point Howard suggested that the school budget should have been resolved prior to setting tax rates. (The council agreed earlier this year to raise taxes for the current budget, with most of the new revenue going for schools.)

Howard’s comment prompted an outburst of applause and remarks from audience members.

Bernardini reacted by saying, “If you people can’t show a little respect… ” He then suggested that the council should simply adjourn and wait to see what the School Committee would do.

“We’ve done our work,” Bernardini said, “and I think it’s time they did theirs.”

“You’re all public officials,” said an unidentified member of the audience. “You’re not working together.”

Voters already have rejected the city’s proposed school budget in two referendums. The last proposed budget adopted by the School Committee was for $8.8 million, but the City Council trimmed that to $8.3 million. The proposed school budget that was defeated most recently, Aug. 27, included $1.4 million in local funds, about $251,000 more compared with the previous school year.

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