MILLINOCKET, Maine — Faced with the need to offset the looming loss of the town’s biggest taxpayer, school leaders considered dramatic actions on Wednesday before opting to take more time to plan.
A motion to close Granite Street School and fold its population into Stearns High School next year failed by a 2-1 vote.
School board members discussed cutting the positions of two grade school workers — and positions systemwide — before deciding to meet again. No date has been set for the meeting.
The board didn’t have enough data to make a decision, member Warren Steward said during the meeting at Stearns. About 70 teachers and parents attended.
“I would think as a board we would have to have a chance to look over the whole thing,” Steward said. “I agree with the lady who asked, if we are going to shut down Granite Street, where is your plan?”
Superintendent Kenneth Smith issued a memo just before the meeting recommending the closure of Granite Street to save $202,403. That would be the largest part of meeting a $300,000 budget cut the Town Council recommended on Tuesday.
The rest of the $300,000 savings would come from laying off a school secretary, freezing teachers’ wages, and eliminating extra- and co-curricular activities, according to the memo.
The Town Council and school board called the meeting after they learned last week that Great Northern Paper Co. LLC will put its town papermaking equipment up for auction next month. That loss of $2.3 million in tax revenue would affect the 2015-16 fiscal year.
Members proposed cutting $3 million from town and school budgets over the next two years to compensate. A $600,000 cut split equally between the two budgets would take effect July 1, which starts the 2014-15 fiscal year, and cushion some of the cut.
Teachers union president Terry Given urged cuts be made in 2015-16. She reminded board members that state law requires municipalities to educate school-age residents or tuition them elsewhere.
Cutting Granite Street “is a huge hit that may or may not have to happen,” Given said. “It’s as if we are writing the town’s obituary, and I think that that’s a mistake.”
Councilors John Raymond and Gilda Stratton expressed frustration with the board’s lack of action. The council and board have battled over finances for years. Councilors say the school board exceeds its budget. Board members say the council punishes the schools for the town’s financial condition.
“I think they can cut without hurting the kids. They can look in other places,” Stratton said.
The town filed a lien against GNP last year and on May 21 seeking $2.3 million. Last year’s payment came months late and Cate Street said the latest lien would delay its efforts to launch a $140 million pellet mill and restart a paper mill in East Millinocket.
If they waited awhile, board members would know whether a new GNP will pay its delinquent taxes. They could see whether plans to allow Lee Academy to assume the school’s administration and bolster it with tuition would succeed, Steward said.