MILLINOCKET, Maine — School and municipal leaders will discuss a possible $312,000 deficit in the town education budget when they meet on Tuesday in what school board Chairman Michael Jewers hopes will be a reconciliation instead of a showdown, he said Friday.
Concerned about a recent Town Council meeting in which councilors urged residents to demand greater accountability from the school board, Jewers said he hoped both sides would work together amicably to resolve issues.
“We want to be sure that we are both reading the right budget and that the facts are right in what we say,” Jewers said Friday. “No one is doing it personally, but the figures from the town and school collide with each other. No one really wants to give an inch here and hopefully we can work some of this out at this meeting.”
Town Manager Peggy Daigle told councilors during a meeting on Feb. 27 that she saw the $312,000 trend and estimated that the school department was $187,000 over budget at that point due to an accidental double-booking of international program fund revenues and insufficient budgeting controls.
Superintendent Kenneth Smith issued a strong denial after the meeting. He said that while the department was reducing expenditures to conform to some revenue shortfalls, the school budget was not in deficit and wouldn’t necessarily end the year that way. He called Daigle’s accounting “superficial bookkeeping.”
Councilors voted 7-0 on two motions during the meeting. One motion instituted a series of cuts or transfers that school officials suggested Daigle said would bring the department back in line with its $6.3 million general fund budget. That motion included a school pledge to cut another $127,642.
The second motion held the department’s International Program Special Revenue Fund budget at $353,277 for the 2013-14 fiscal year, which ends June 30.
Tuesday’s meeting will allow both sides to discuss the numbers and arrive at an understanding, Jewers said.
“I think people’s feelings have been hurt,” Jewers said. “Peggy and the town council have said a lot about [Smith] and I think he has heard as much as he is going to hear. I talked to the council chair, and I agree that we can address each other civilly. Let’s let’s try to do the right thing here.”
The council and school board have fought over the School Department budget for close to a decade as the Katahdin region has suffered from declining state aid and populations and a slumping economy, which Jewers said was closer to the heart of both boards’ problems than any one dispute.
“My job is to ensure that we have a strong school system. I think all of us are on board that we want to educate our kids in our community, and I know in the future, the very near future, the look of the school system is going to be a lot different,” Jewers said. “I don’t think either one of us wants to shortchange our kids. It is not a power struggle. They can’t see it as just black and white.”
Daigle has met several times with school officials and the town’s attorney, Dean Beaupain, to review school finances. She said she communicates closely with auditor Roger Lebreux and acting Maine Department of Education Commissioner James Rier.
Daigle and councilors said her work followed up an audit of the 2012-13 fiscal year that found that the school department had accumulated a $512,237 deficit in its unassigned fund balance since 2011. The deficit was caused by the over-anticipation of several revenue sources, Lebreux said.
Jewers said that at least part of the problem comes from the Maine Department of Education and state Legislature setting their school funding formulas after the school and town boards set their budgets. This makes revenue estimation a more difficult task, he said.
Daigle has declined to discuss the school budget several times since the Feb. 27 meeting, saying she wanted to let things settle down. She and Smith did not return telephone calls on Friday.
The town’s economic troubles, Jewers said, have less of an impact on the school budget than many think because state education funding formulas compensate somewhat for them. “If the tax base goes down, our revenue from the state rises,” Jewers said.
Tuesday’s meeting will be held at the town office at 4 p.m.