By J.W. Oliver
Damariscotta voters approve the special education category of the 2015-2016 secondary education budget during a special town meeting in the Great Salt Bay Community School cafeteria Thursday, May 28. (J.W. Oliver photo)
Damariscotta voters approved the town’s 2015-2016 secondary education budget during a second special town meeting for the purpose in the Great Salt Bay Community School cafeteria Thursday evening, May 28.
The special education category at the center of several residents’ concerns about the budget passed 28-13 after about an hour of debate and discussion.
The $1,713,896 secondary education budget represents an increase of $444,092 or 34.97 percent over the 2014-2015 budget. Damariscotta voters initially rejected the budget during a special town meeting at the town office May 6.
The opposition focused on an overall increase of $444,092 or 34.97 percent over the 2014-2015 budget and a $200,000 expense for one special education student to attend school out of state.
The remainder of the increase stems from back-to-back hikes in the state-established tuition rate the town pays for students to attend Lincoln Academy, as well as an increase in enrollment from 95.5 to 102.5 students.
The secondary education budget contains all expenses for Damariscotta students in grades nine through 12, most of whom attend Lincoln Academy in Newcastle.
Some residents at the May 28 meeting were more receptive to the $200,000 expense after learning of the state’s commitment to reimburse the town for approximately three-quarters of the amount, although the town will still have to pay up front.
Other residents were less willing to support the budget.
“I don’t see much belt-tightening in this whole school operation and I’m here to tell you the well is running dry,” Jim Campbell said. “My well is running dry and I’m sure a lot of other people’s wells are running dry.”
Sandi Day also expressed concern about property taxes, while acknowledging that a no vote would simply delay the inevitable.
“We could have any number of students who need this kind of placement at any time … and as a big taxpayer in the town of Damariscotta, sadly, because of Day property going back 200 years, it’s exceedingly difficult every year to just have that tax bill go up every year by huge percentages, so I’m concerned,” she said.
Day called for school administrators to “work diligently to promote programs in Maine” to avoid expensive out-of-state placements and for state and town officials to lobby the federal government to pay its share of special education costs.
Dick Mayer echoed Campbell’s comments.
“I’m on the budget committee for the town and we did belt-tighten,” Mayer said. “We cut $50,000 out of the town budget. I don’t see one penny cut out of the school budget, based on what you presented at the last meeting. Where is the belt-tightening?”
Central Lincoln County School System Superintendent Steve Bailey said the school system largely lacks authority over secondary education costs.
“The state sets the tuition rate and we have no negotiating ability to be able to alter or reduce that tuition rate,” Bailey said. “If there could have been other ways we could have done the belt-tightening, we would have brought a smaller budget to you.”
George Betke spoke about the need for more information about the high-cost placement. “I’m not advocating full disclosure because I understand the limitations on that, but I am objecting to virtually no disclosure,” he said.
Betke suggested that voters pass the budget on the condition that the state follow through on its agreement to reimburse the town for most of the high-cost placement.
Damariscotta School Committee member Angela Russ talked about the committee’s review of the budget.
“We understand, and (committee members) Conor (Smith) and Brent (Hallowell) and I had all the same questions and all the same concerns, and I want to remind you all that we, too, are taxpayers,” Russ said. “We’re not just spending your money. This is our money too.”
“I also want to remind you, you don’t have a choice, and you can have a tantrum and not pass this budget, which would be very juvenile and childlike, and then we’re going to be right back here again,” Russ said.
Kathryn Kennedy also talked about the town’s legal obligation to fund the budget and advocated for its passage.
When the state does not have the program necessary to serve a special education student, “we don’t force people to move,” Kennedy said. “We support them and we bring the community together to support these students because we are a community and we should act like one.”
Russ’ comments evoked indignant responses from some at the meeting.
“With all due respect to one of the past speakers, I didn’t see any tantrums here,” Mayer said. “I saw people who were concerned, who support special education, who support our children, but who are concerned about the fiscal impact of this situation and the fundamental unfairness of being asked to make these payments without any information.”
Steven Hufnagel talked about the value of privacy in the situation.
“I have a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old and, by the grace of God, they’re going through school and I think it’s about $9,000 a year per kid,” Hufnagel said. “What if it were them? Would I want that in the public discussion about what the specifics were?”
Karen Kleinkopf called on those with concerns about the budget to take action beyond expressing their concerns at the meeting.
“Make a difference,” Kleinkopf said. “If that’s going to be your passion, do it, but right now, we have a budget to pass and we have children to educate, so please, pass this budget.”
The special education category did pass, 28-13. Fourteen of the other 15 budget articles passed with little or no discussion or dissent.
A secret ballot vote to raise the money necessary to fund the budget above the state allocation model passed 27-18.
Damariscotta voters must grant final approval to the budget in a budget validation referendum for it to take effect. The referendum will take place Tuesday, June 9, with polls open at the Damariscotta town office from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.