RSU 12 board members analyzed last Thursday possible reasons the third budget for their eight-town Sheepscot Valley Regional School Unit failed at the polls, and anguished over when to try again.
Was the prevailing ‘no’ vote (599-810) a strike against school consolidation rather than the relatively small 2.2 percent hike the $26.5 million spending plan represents? Was it a slap at the board for a perceived $1.5-$2 million increase over the previous year’s budget that critics say was $24 million?
To this point, chairman Thom Birmingham said those critics are “dealing with bogus numbers.” Supt. Greg Potter said, “They don’t understand that a large amount of unexpended money was never allocated to the 2009 budget.” He said budget faultfinders are putting that $1.5-plus million into their calculations when in fact the money was left out.
Whitefield member Hilary Holm said end-of-year budgets are now available, showing where revenues were higher and expenditures lower than expected (for example, because a person who was hired didn’t end up with the job). Before presenting another budget, she suggested, the board must look at these statements and take into account what the actual carryover funds are. In earlier budget adjustments, unexpended balances were estimated.
Member William Stafford, of Alna, said critics in his town believe “there’s not a lot of pencil sharpening going on, but a lot of shell game,” and Chelsea’s Sherrill Hallett said, “Voters are looking at how the figures are coming down (between votes) and they’re not coming down a lot.”
Blake Brown, of Palermo, pointed to the dwindling number of Palermo residents showing up at regional meetings. He reminded the board there was zero turn out at the “road tour” informational meeting last spring. “People don’t care about this RSU. They’re waiting for Nov. 3 to have their say,” he said, referring to the referendum to repeal school consolidation law.
Chelsea’s new member, Betty Larrabee, commented, “People are having a hard time paying their taxes now, they don’t want to see them go up next year.” It has been predicted that meeting education expenses in 2011 will be even harder than in 2010, partly because carryover funds will be much lower.
Finance committee members said it was too late to attempt a flat funded budget because taxes have been committed. Chair Jerry Nault, of Windsor, cautioned, “If we do a one million dollar cut, there’ll be blood on the floor,” a reference to eliminating programs and personnel. “If we do $600,000, the cuts will be draconian.”
Finance committee member Holm asked the full board for its input. “What is it we’re dealing with? What do we understand from the last vote? Does it mandate we cut some amount, and if so, what is it? Or could we get ‘yes’ if we got the vote out, get the parents out. Or, if parents voted ‘no,’ why?”
Chris Johnson, of Somerville, said, “I’m not impressed with the depth with which anyone is examining the issues. We worked hard to reduce the local share. My cynical view is if we reduced the bottom line in the budget, that would have an impact, and that’s sad.” At the same time, he said he favored making some cuts.
Eugene Stover, of Wiscasset, suggested one way to get parents’ attention. “Loss of teachers, loss of athletics – say this is what has to happen to cut $1 million out of your budget.”
Offering his perspective, Lester Sheaffer, of Whitefield, said, “I’m skittish this late in the season. Whatever cuts we make shouldn’t interrupt what the kids are doing” Several other members doubted an outcome so benign it would go unnoticed by students was possible.
Wiscasset’s Shawn Cloutier said he was “pretty confident” that there is no place to cut even $100,000 “without hurting a child.” He favored Holm’s idea of holding a face-to-face workshop where board choices could be openly aired with the public and the impacts clearly spelled out.
Concurring that a Nov. 3 vote, to coincide with the general election, was too early for a fourth budget vote, the board approved tabling the matter. Instead, they agreed to hold a special board meeting on the budget in Wiscasset, where the divide between supporters and opponents (138-260) was most pronounced. That session will include a public comment opportunity, as usual.
“If folks want to come, they can share what’s on their minds,” said Potter this week. The meeting will be held at the Wiscasset Middle School (Federal Street) gymnasium starting at 6:30 p.m. The board’s regular meeting will be held the following Thurs., Oct. 22, possibly in Wiscasset.
The board, which has been meeting in Whitefield because of its central location, favors rotating meeting places within the RSU.
Before the special meeting next week, Potter said he and the administrative team will discuss “ways of belt tightening,” including limited freezes on such items as field trips and supplies. “We’ve been frugal to date,” he said, but predicted more savings might be found.
He said he would propose pay-to-play sports and trimming anything not required by law before supporting “drastic cuts” in educational programs and personnel.
Potter noted that RSU 12 “could very well be the only school system in the history of the state not to get a budget.” Nonetheless, state school consolidation law governing the two-part budget adoption process says that if a validation vote fails at the polls, the RSU continues to operate by using the budget adopted at the regional meeting preceding the vote.
There was no action on Chelsea’s interim agreements.
None of the teacher contracts have been settled yet, according to Potter.