Superintendent to directors: 'You don't have the stomach' to close schoolsCommittee opts to pitch zero-increase expenditure budget
Searsport — The Regional School Unit 20 Superintendent took members of the Board of Directors to task Tuesday, Aug. 13, for not doing what he said needs to be done to balance the budget while preserving quality programs — close some of the district's elementary schools.
RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter told members of the finance committee the board has missed the chance to close some of the small elementary school for the coming year because it's too close to the start of the 2013-14 school year, but it doesn't mean that option should not be considered in the near future.
“This board is not willing to do what's required to be done,” he said, adding the directors were welcome to issue him his “walking papers” tomorrow if they wished. “You don't have the stomach to do what [former finance committee chairman] Gerry Reid said had to be done. You need to close elementary schools.”
Carpenter said the district can continue to maintain the status quo, keep the budget as it has been in recent years and continue the ongoing battles between those who favor spending more for education and those who seek tax relief. Or, it can move to close schools, move students to new locations in the district and change how those schools are funded if the host communities choose to keep the doors open.
“Then whatever is over [Essential Programs and Services], they take up those costs,” said Carpenter, referring to the state's formula for funding public education. “... The board's got to make those tough decisions.”
Director Stephen Hopkins said he agreed “100 percent,” adding that the state, as part of it's funding formula, has determined the district has 32 more teachers than what it needs to educate the amount of students who attends RSU 20 schools. Hopkins suggested the district lower the amount of credits seniors need to graduate from RSU 20 high schools, noting seniors must now have 24 credits to graduate. The state minimum, he said, is 16 credits.
“I think we offer a lot more than a lot of public schools do,” he said. “... I think we just offer too much.”
Director Sharon Catus of Stockton Springs said her community has lost its elementary school this year, and said Frankfort left the district in part due to the threat that their local school faced closure a few years ago.
“It's time. Let's see some equity on the other side of the river,” she said.
Carpenter made the comment regarding closing elementary schools as members of the committee discussed what direction to take with a third budget proposal. The committee eventually agreed by consensus to recommend the board present a zero-increase budget to the public, but Director Percy King said a zero increase budget would still mean an across the board increase in community assessments of up to 10 percent because of decreases in state and federal funding.
“That's where the bottom line is people,” said King, who suggested the board offer the public a brief explanation about the overall budget at the start of the next budget validation meeting.
Hopkins said if the board puts out a zero-increase budget it's up to voters to increase it at the budget validation meeting, and if the majority approves those motions to increase budget lines, “they can't complain about the board coming back with a bad budget.”
Carpenter cautioned directors that a new budget proposal includes cuts to teaching positions that have not already been highlighted as proposed cuts, the staff contract dictates the district must give 90 days notice and must pay those teachers for that time. Carpenter said that would not apply to teachers who have already been given notice that their positions would likely be eliminated.
Director Valerie Mank gave the board an overview of the results garnered from the survey she posted at the website surveymonkey.com to gain insight about why residents in the eight towns rejected the last budget proposal totaling $33.4 million at the polls July 30. She said 345 people responded to the survey, which allowed a space for participants to specify why they either did or did not support that budget. Of those who voted, nearly 300 voted against the budget and 57 voted for it, and more then 300 people left comments, some of which Mank said were lengthy.
Those who commented, Mank said, spoke of the importance of art. Some wanted more money back in the budget, some wanted more cuts, she said.
“People were voting no for two completely opposite reasons,” she said.
Mank said she would get the survey results and comments into a more readable format and present the entire package to the board for review.
She said some commented about inequity between the elementary schools and the high schools, stating the high schools appear to get the most resources while the elementary schools operate on “bare bones” budgets. Others suggested the board cut more positions that do not have a direct impact on the children.
But, Mank said, there were also a fair amount of comments from taxpayers who are struggling to make ends meet. In Mank's hometown of Searsmont, she said the town has taken out its first tax anticipation loan in seven years.
“Because we can't afford the school payment this month,” she said.
In an effort to gain more insight as to what most district voters wish to see in a 2013-14 budget proposal, the board opted to host a pair of public forums this week. In addition to scheduling the forums, the Board of Directors set dates for Finance Committee meetings, a special meeting to approve the next proposed budget, as well as the budget validation meeting and the budget referendum vote. The dates, times and locations are as follows:
Tuesday, Aug. 20 at 6:30 p.m. - Public forum, Troy Howard Middle School
Wednesday, Aug. 21 at 6:30 p.m. - Public forum, Searsport District High School
Thursday, Aug. 22 at noon - Finance Committee workshop, central office
Friday, Aug. 23 at noon - Finance Committee workshop, central office
Monday, Aug. 26 at 5:30 pm - Finance Committee meeting, BAHS Band Room
Monday, Aug. 26 at 6:30 pm - Special board meeting to approve the 2013-14 budget, BAHS band room
Thursday, Aug. 29 at 6:30 p.m. - Special board meeting to sign warrants, central office
Tuesday, Sept. 3 - Warrants posted in district towns
Tuesday, Sept. 10 - 7 p.m. - Budget validation meeting at THMS
Tuesday, Sept. 17 - Budget referendum vote
This marks the third time the RSU 20 Board of Directors has faced the challenge of creating a budget proposal for the coming school year that voters in the eight towns are willing to approve.
The budget package the board proposed in May totaled $33.5 million, but by the end of the four-hour budget validation meeting at Troy Howard Middle School, residents restored about half of the $1.7 million worth of cuts the directors proposed. The restored funds totaled $856,010.
In the latest budget pitch, the board came back to residents during a validation meeting July 22 with a proposed $33.8 million budget that was reduced by residents by $363,563 to a final figure of $33,459,979.
Voters in all eight towns rejected both proposals at the polls.