May 21, 2018
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Bangor councilor wants more control over school budget in wake of tax hike

By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — A Bangor city councilor hopes to rekindle talks that could give the Council line-item authority over the Bangor School Department budget.

Councilor Pauline Civiello has asked that the Council discuss a potential city charter amendment that would allow the Council to control expenditures in certain portions of the school budget. Those discussion will start at Monday night’s Government Operations Committee meeting.

Currently, the city Council has no authority to reduce the individual expenses laid out in the school budget — for example, it can’t tell the school department to take $20,000 out of the extracurriculars account — but can approve or deny the total budget allocation sought by the school committee.

During this year’s budget process, Civiello voiced repeated concerns about the Bangor School Committee-approved $43 million school spending plan. Ultimately, a majority of councilors and city voters approved the budget.

Civiello has argued that with dipping enrollment in Bangor schools, the cost of education also should be less. She said several residents have reached out to her with their own concerns about the school budget. Some of those residents are on fixed incomes, so any increase in their taxes hurts. The council works closely with every other department to monitor expenses, but has little involvement in the school budget process, she argued. She said it was “common sense that all departments should be treated equally” while weeding through their respective budgets.

The school budget for fiscal year 2015 is a 1.25 percent increase over this year’s. That accounts for 59 cents worth of the $1 increase to the city’s mill rate.

“We do know that things have changed,” Civiello said. “The school obviously needs money from [taxpayers] and the state, but we don’t have revenue coming in like we did eight or 10 years ago.”

Civiello has said she believes the school board should give strong consideration to closing or consolidating some of the city’s schools with the lowest enrollment numbers.

School board Chairman Warren Caruso said he believes the majority of councilors will back the school committee’s budget process and won’t see council intervention as necessary. He plans on attending Monday night’s Government Operations Committee meeting.

He said the budget is a carefully thought out and frugal effort to maintain the department’s high quality of education while coping with dwindling funding resources.

“I think we’ve been a good partner with the city,” Caruso said. “The issues are not with us, the issues are with the funding we’re receiving from the state.”

Over the past six budget seasons, the School Department has lost about $6.7 million in funding. In spite of that, Caruso argued, the school budget has averaged a 1 percent increase during that same period of time.

“If you look at the school budget, it’s been very well vetted through the process” by school administrators and Superintendent Betsy Webb before it hits the desks of committee members, Caruso said.

City Solicitor Norman Heitmann said the idea of giving the City Council more authority over the school budget has been discussed several times in the past. In 2005, for example, then-Councilor Richard Greene tried to spark a change to the city charter that would have given the Council authority over some items in the school budget.

He ultimately failed to find enough support on the nine-member Council.

This sort of Council authority isn’t without precedent. Brewer city councilors, for example, have ultimate say over about 10 categories within their school system’s budget. Typically, they work closely with school committee members to formulate a budget that falls within a certain budget in hopes of minimizing or eliminating tax hikes.

If city councilors are going to get authority to adjust school budget expenses, the change would need to be approved by voters in a charter amendment. That request could be put on a ballot through a Council vote, which would spark a public hearing, followed by another vote that would decide whether the issue appears on the ballot.

Charter amendments such as this require a 30 percent voter turnout. If the turnout is smaller, the amendment fails even if a majority of voters favor it. For that reason, Heitmann said it would have to appear on the ballot for the November general elections.

In order to meet deadlines to appear on November’s ballot, the Council would need to approve the charter amendment question by late-August.

Watch for updates.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter @nmccrea213.

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