June 23, 2018
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Proposal to give Bangor council line-item authority over school budget falls short again

By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — The Bangor City Council on Monday night shot down a proposal to hold a public hearing that would have launched the process of giving councilors line-item veto authority over the school department’s budget.

The move effectively kills the initiative, presented by Councilor Pauline Civiello, which sought to kick off talks about a charter change that would have given the city council authority to change appropriations in the school budget under 10 categories ranging from payroll to extracurricular activities. The idea, which has surfaced several times during the past few decades, could still be revived by a citizens’ initiative or by a future council.

After nearly two hours of debate, the council decided in a 6-3 vote not to set a time for a public hearing on the issue, meaning it can’t move forward in the charter amendment process.

Councilors Civiello, Joe Baldacci and James Gallant voted in favor of moving forward with a public hearing and pushing the amendment to the next stage. Councilors Pat Blanchette, Nelson Durgin, Gibran Graham, David Nealley, Josh Plourde and Council Chairman Ben Sprague voted against scheduling the hearing.

Civiello brought forward the proposal at the request of several residents, she said. 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 has called that a “barrier” to effective council leadership and control over the city’s overall budget, as well as tax changes that might result.

Several councilors who voted against holding a hearing argued that the council already has a say in the school budget, as councilors met on three separate occasions during the last budget process.

“[Superintendent Betsy Webb] is right down the hall, she’s no stranger to any one of us,” Blanchette said, arguing that the superintendent and school committee have always been open with and worked with councilors on the 6,000-plus-line school budget.

Councilor David Nealley said he was “conflicted” prior to the vote, arguing that he doesn’t believe the relationship and collaboration between the school committee and city council has ever been stronger. However, “we aren’t involved in the minutiae of the school budget,” and aren’t as well-versed in intricacies, such as state and federal mandates, facing school systems as the school committee is.

Gallant argued that the council should move forward with the public hearing and discussion as some of its constituents were requesting, whether the question ultimately went on the ballot would be up to a future council vote. People were asking for a discussion at this point, nothing more, he said.

The public comment session that led up to Monday’s vote evolved into something of a public hearing on the charter amendment in itself, with residents on both sides stepping up to the lectern for almost an hour.

Some argued that the school board isn’t like other city departments, which the council does have budget authority over, because it’s overseen by its own body of publicly elected officials. If residents don’t feel that group is doing its job, it can vote them out in the next election cycle.

Several residents expressed frustration over the nearly 5 percent property tax hike resulting from this year’s overall municipal budget.

“The burden of this school budget is really harsh on us individuals that don’t have children,” said Wayne Levasseur. “You can raise our taxes, but I can’t raise my income.”

He said he believed the school committee was allowing a lot of “extras” in its budget and called the school system “spoiled.” School officials have maintained that this is a “bare-bones” budget that maintains the quality of education in the city with a minimal burden to taxpayers.

Other speakers defended the school committee’s efforts.

Michael Alpert, who served on the school committee in the 1980s, argued against giving the council veto authority because it would overcomplicate and “short-circuit” the budget process. He also pointed out that Bangor voters have consistently and vehemently supported the school budget at the polls in recent years.

School board member Phyllis Guerrette acknowledged during the meeting that “of course in any relationship there’s always room for improvement.” School board chair Warren Caruso has said the board would be willing to host more meetings with the city council if it eases concerns about their involvement in or knowledge of the process.

A full video of the meeting is available on the city’s website and also will be aired on the city’s government channel.

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