CALAIS, Maine — Councilor Chris Bernardini offered a brief civics lesson last week to voters who may oppose the upcoming referendum on the school budget.
Bernardini reminded those attending the regular City Council meeting on Thursday night that members of both the council and the School Committee take an oath of office.
City officials also are bound by law to adopt a budget that does not exceed revenue projections, he said.
If the Aug. 27 referendum on the school budget is rejected by voters, who already turned down a similar budget, the City Council cannot approve a higher amount and put that before voters, contended Bernardini. Councilors would be bound to try again by approving a smaller school budget, he said.
“That’s food for thought for anyone who wants to defeat this referendum,” he said.
Calais residents rejected a school budget in a July referendum by a vote of 238-55. The $8.3 million school budget on the upcoming referendum, which was adopted by the City Council at a special session two weeks ago, contains roughly an additional $50,000. The proposed school budget includes $1.4 million in local funds.
The School Committee, which had proposed a budget of $8.8 million, has begun considering spending cuts exceeding $400,000 proposed by interim superintendent Raymond Freve. His recommendations to meet the newly proposed budget include eliminating a handful of positions, imposing four furlough days and dropping some extracurricular activities, including boys and girls basketball for grades seven and eight, yearbook, drama, vocal instruction and class advisors. The positions he recommended for cuts include a middle school teacher, high school assistant principal, high school librarian and music and art teaching positions.
The City Council could allocate more money for schools, City Manager Diane Barnes acknowledged this week, but only by reducing spending in the municipal budget because the tax rate for the current budget already has been set.
“Keep in mind the municipal budget is only $3.2 million,” Barnes said Monday, and the difference between what the School Committee proposed and the budget approved by City Council for the referendum is $420,000. “I just don’t know how they would do that [reduce the municipal budget] if you look at the line items.”
The school budget referendum approved by the City Council increased the local share of school funding by $251,000 compared to the previous school year, noted Barnes. In addition, it increased the mill rate with 85 percent of the additional revenue going for schools, she said.
Bernardini expressed dismay at the recommendation by Freve to cut spending for music programs.
“I think more questions need to be asked,” he said during last week’s meeting.
He also suggested that school officials should talk to the teachers union about the possibility of renegotiating its contract, apparently in an effort to obtain concessions. Teachers are in the midst of a three-year contract that was last negotiated in 2012.
Lori Ellis, president of the Calais Education Association, which represents the teachers, sidestepped a question about whether the union would be amenable to renegotiating its pact.
“Until we meet with Mr. Freve, I really have no comment,” Ellis said Friday. Union officials and members of the School Committee are trying to arrange a meeting “to talk about these issues,” she said.
“I find it interesting,” added Ellis, that Bernardini did not propose new talks with other public employee unions, such as those representing police officers or firefighters. “But that’s my personal opinion.”
The city has worked with municipal employee unions in order to keep costs down, Bernardin suggested Monday. School system employees have a “Cadillac health plan” — different from the health insurance plan options offered to municipal employees — that should be scrutinized, he said.
School officials have nothing to lose by asking the union to renegotiate, said Bernardini. “The worse they can say is no,” he said at Thursday night’s meeting.
He urged officials to further scrutinize spending for the upcoming year. “Have we looked at everything we can do?” he asked.
“There’s also a fiduciary responsibility to provide a good education for these kids,” said Councilor Billy Howard.
At the same time, Howard noted that the local government must not overextend itself financially. “You gotta live within your means,” he said.
New residents are not flocking to the city, Howard observed. In fact, residential growth in recent years has been negative, he suggested. More homes have been torn down in the past two years than have been built in the past five years, he said.
The City Council voted in July to increase the mill rate by $2 per $1,000 property tax valuation — from $23.30 to $25.30 — in order to generate more revenue for its junior-senior high school and elementary school. The increase will generate about $300,000 in new revenue.