MADAWASKA, Maine — The third time was the charm for Madawaska residents, who passed the current school year’s budget by a narrow five votes earlier this week.

The $6.5 million fiscal year 2014-15 budget passed three previous town meeting votes but failed twice at referendum before it passed at a third referendum Tuesday with a 275-270 vote.

“We are very, very relieved,” Ginette Albert, superintendent of the Madawaska School Department, said Friday morning. But she said school officials were still concerned about the high number of “no” votes.

The school committee faced an uphill battle with the budget this year, as it worked to make cuts to reduce the local tax commitment.

The total $2.7 million local share represents a $55,373 reduction over last year’s budget.

Albert said she was able to make enough cuts to get the budget passed by using unexpended surplus from last year’s operating budget. In all, Albert said $336,000 was brought forward from last year’s budget.

While glad to see a reduction in the tax commitment, members of the Madawaska municipal budget committee did not support the manner in which the cuts were made and refused to recommend the proposed budgets.

For months, Paul Cyr, budget committee chairman, maintained the issue was not about the amount Albert cut from the budget but how she arrived at those cuts.

“All they did this time was rob money out of unexpended funds, and [they] are hoping to convince the voters that means less local taxes,” Cyr told the Bangor Daily News in August, referring to the latest budget proposal. “But they still have not addressed the issues vital to making a budget that is sustainable.”

Chief among those issues, he said, were increasing costs associated with administrative and teaching salaries and with health care expenses.

On Friday, Albert said the school committee heard that message loud and clear.

“I know the community is weary hearing about the budget,” she said. “I get the message that we need to look at [employee] benefits and that the biggest concern is the high cost of [employee] insurance.”

Albert said taking a long look at costs associated with employee benefits and salaries is a top priority of the school committee.

“That is good news,” Cyr said Friday morning. “That means they have taken some of our concerns to heart.”

Albert and Cyr agree there are no easy answers for reducing expenses, but they are ready to roll up their sleeves to begin work on the 2015-16 budget.

“I hope [the school committee] starts early,” Cyr said. “That way, if there are some tough issues, they will have plenty of time to address them.”

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.