Calais school panel tables budget cuts

Posted Sept. 25, 2013, at 1:55 p.m.

CALAIS, Maine — The dispute over school spending between the City Council and the School Committee continues, with supporters of the school system making a show of force and lamenting how the issue has divided the community.

The School Committee, facing about 200 supporters of the city’s school system, unanimously voted Tuesday night to table action on proposed budget cuts.

The panel met in the high school cafeteria, which was filled with supporters of the school system. Almost two dozen people — residents, parents, students, teachers and school administrators — railed against the proposed cuts for almost two hours. They paraded to a microphone set up near the school committee to offer their comments. Many of the remarks drew bursts of applause and other comments from people seated in the audience.

Calais voters twice have rejected the proposed school budget approved by the City Council. The School Committee requested more funds each time.

Most recently, voters rejected a proposed $8.3 million school budget in August that increased local spending for schools by $251,000. The School Committee had requested $8.8 million, although the amount in the August referendum was $50,000 more than the proposed school budget that was defeated in a July vote.

The City Council increased the mill rate earlier this month with 85 percent of the additional revenue going for schools.

The City Council trimmed $50,000 from capital spending plans in the current budget when it met earlier this month in order to free up more funds for schools. Then it voted to approve a proposed school budget of $8,429,834 and set a referendum for Sept. 24, but it later rescinded its decision to hold the referendum pending action by the School Committee. The City Council also has released some capital funds for schools, and the School Committee already has made some spending cuts.

The current shortfall between the proposed school budget and expected revenues is $446,316. Superintendent Keith Laser has proposed a list of 12 possible spending cuts, including the elimination of nine full-time positions — administrators, teachers, custodians and others. Two other proposals to reduce spending called for dropping co-curricular and extra-curricular positions and expenditures and three furlough days. Laser’s proposed spending cuts total $565,000.

“My heart is very heavy,” said Laser, who reminded the audience he has only been on the job three weeks. All Maine school districts are struggling with limited revenues, he said.

“You’re cutting into the bone,” said Laser, referring to the proposals to eliminate positions. “There’s no easy answer to any of this stuff. It’s painful all the way around.”

The City Council raised taxes and has funded the city’s local share of the school system at about the level required by the state, he reminded the audience.

The themes struck by speakers Tuesday night touched on how the budget dispute has divided the community and the need for unity, and the importance of what many consider to be the city’s crown jewel — its public schools.

“We have a city that is divided,” said Ed Leeman, a high school teacher and coach of the boys basketball team. “It needs to be ‘we.’”

Senior class president Conor McCadden was one of several students who appealed to the School Committee. When he asked other students in the audience to stand, he was joined by about 40-50 others.

“This is an absolute atrocity,” said Tom Webster. “I’m going to vote no,” on the next school budget referendum, he added, “and force the city” to increase funding for schools.

A parent, Kim Stanley, pointed out that if extracurricular activities are eliminated, many students would have nothing to do after school and may be left unsupervised while their parents are still working. “What’s going to happen to them?” she asked. “These sports are important to the community and these kids.”

Several members of the City Council were present, but only Councilor Art Mingo took the floor. He said the school system is the city’s biggest draw for growth and economic development and also noted how the budget battle has divided the community. “We have to stick together,” he said.

Another parent asked for people in the audience to stand if they opposed the proposed cuts, and the overwhelming majority rose to its feet.

“That’s the only way we can force their hand,” said School Committee member Robert Greenlaw, if the audience shows up en masse before the next meeting of the City Council Thursday night.

“My gut is wrenching,” Laser said after listening to the appeals. However, he warned that if cuts are delayed, the school committee may be faced with even more spending reductions. The school division currently is operating on interim funding approved by City Council that is less than what the School Committee sought.

Members of the audience indicated they would appear before the City Council to appeal for more funds for the school system. Greenlaw made a motion to table action on the cuts, and it was seconded by Kathleen Caso. “I hope you’re all right,” Caso told the audience. After the panel’s unanimous decision, the audience gave them a standing ovation.

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