BANGOR, Maine — Bangor city councilors will decide next Monday whether to host a public hearing to ask residents whether they believe the council should have line-item authority over the School Department’s budget.
On Monday night, Councilor Pauline Civiello brought a charter amendment proposal to the city’s government operations committee. The change would give City Council authority to change appropriations in the school budget under 10 categories ranging from payroll to extracurricular activities.
The committee voted 3-2 to hold a council vote on whether to hold a public hearing that would allow the potential charter change to be considered on the November general election ballot.
Under the current charter, the nine-member council only has authority to approve or reject the bottom-line gross allocation request handed up from the seven-member Bangor School Committee.
Civiello calls that a “barrier” to effective council leadership and control over the city’s overall budget, as well as tax shifts that might result. Civiello argues that council has authority over the budgets of the fire department, public works and other city departments, so it would be “common sense” to include the school system under that umbrella as well.
Civiello has argued that with dipping enrollment in Bangor schools, the cost of education also should be less.
It’s unclear whether next Monday’s vote to move the process forward will pass muster. Several councilors expressed reservations and three, Ben Sprague, Nelson During and Gibran Graham were outright opposed.
The council could collectively vote not to hold a public hearing, in which case the referendum proposal would die. However, it could be revived by a citizens’ initiative.
A group of 10 residents, several of whom had asked Civiello to bring the amendment to the table, attended the meeting and called on the council to move forward with talks about installing veto power.
Graham argued during the meeting that residents who would like to express displeasure with the school budget have the option of voting out current members in favor of people they feel would practice stricter fiscal responsibility.
The $43 million 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.
School board Chairman Warren Caruso said Monday that the school budget is vetted carefully by administrators, the superintendent and school committee multiple times before it goes to the council. The budget is a reflection of the most frugal means of maintaining the city’s high quality of schools — a major draw for people who decide to settle in Bangor.
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 we didn’t have an increase in taxes, would we even be discussing this?” Caruso asked.
He also cited the fact that the school committee had at least two workshops with city council while the committee finalized its budget and sought council and public input.
“We’ll have four workshops if you think it will help,” Caruso said, adding that the budgetary issues of the school department aren’t a result of lack of careful thought and consideration, but rather a result of policy decisions at the state that have slashed funding.
Steve Sleeper of Silver Road argued that the charter needs to be revised, as it was crafted 83 years ago and hasn’t been amended since.
Durgin said the charter has been reviewed many times over the years, most recently in 2010, and the councilors reviewing that portion of the charter have always believed it presented a logical, effective system.
Past councils have looked into this same issue, but each time have voted to stick with the active charter.
Several councilors said they believed the goal of more council involvement in the school committee budget could be accomplished without a charter amendment. Simply improving communication could go a long way.
The likely date for a public hearing, if approved by the council, would be later this month. After that, the council would vote on whether to place the charter amendment on the November ballot.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter @nmccrea213