CALAIS, Maine — City Manager Diane Barnes has been directed by the city council to come up with $200,000 in cuts to the city’s current budget in order to free up more funds for the school system.
The school committee would still have to find another $240,000 in cuts to meet a shortfall in the current school budget. The two panels have disagreed over local funding for the school district, and residents twice have defeated proposed budgets at referendum.
The City Council voted unanimously at a regular session Thursday night to direct Barnes to recommend spending cuts and scheduled a special meeting to receive them next Tuesday.
Those cuts likely will include a proposal hammered out by two councilors to reduce capital spending by an additional $100,000 and tap $9,000 from the city’s undesignated fund balance. The majority of the $100,000 in savings would come from eliminating $40,000 budgeted to resurface tennis courts and $30,000 for playground equipment. That proposal, which was not offered for a vote, was presented by Councilor Alan Dwelley, who said he developed it with Councilor Chris Bernardini.
Before voting to direct Barnes to recommend spending reductions, the council voted to rescind its Sept. 10 decision approving a proposed school budget of $8,379,000, a figure that included an additional $50,000 the council cut that night from the city’s capital budgets. After its Sept. 10 session the council suspended a decision to hold a referendum Sept. 24 on the proposed school budget.
About 200 people showed up for a meeting of the School Committee earlier this week, with the vast majority supporting more funding for schools. The panel was going to consider proposals by Superintendent Keith Laser to impose cuts in the school budget in order to close a shortfall of $446,316. His recommendations included eliminating nine full-time positions, additional part-time positions, and dropping co-curricular and extracurricular activities. However, the School Committee tabled action pending the outcome of Thursday night’s City Council meeting.
“There’s got to be some cuts made” in the school budget, Councilor Art Mingo said at Thursday night’s session, which drew about 160 people and was held at Washington County Community College to accommodate the anticipated crowd. However, the closer the council can get to reducing the municipal budget by about $200,000, “the kids won’t be hurt,” he said.
Councilor Billy Howard called the spending cuts proposed by Laser “unacceptable to me.”
“The fact is, we’ve got to support that school,” said Howard, referring to the high school, because it is helping the city grow by attracting young adults and young families who want to send their children to Calais schools. “That school is one of the key points,” he said.
After the unanimous vote, Howard warned that school officials still must be prepared to impose cuts even if the City Council trims spending to give the schools another $200,000.
The meeting was a contrast from two nights ago, when numerous people criticized City Council and School Committee members for the division in the community and appealed for unity. The council acted Thursday night prior to its period allowing public comment, so those beefs were not reiterated. Instead, a small handful of people took the podium afterward to thank the council.
“We’re going to make every effort to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Mingo told the gathering after the council vote.
School Committee member John Hill was among those who publicly thanked the council, and Laser said he was “humbled” by the outpouring of public support for the school division.
Mayor Marianne Moore said it was “refreshing” to receive so many questions and suggestions about the issue of funding for schools. “I’ve never seen” so much interest in an issue in the 10 years she has served in city government, she said. “I really do appreciate that,” said Moore.
Calais voters twice have rejected the proposed school budget endorsed by the City Council. Most recently, they voted down 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.
The City Council increased the mill rate earlier this year with about 85 percent of the additional revenue going for schools.