SAD 61 proposed budget fails

By Wayne E. Rivet
Staff Writer

When the SAD 61 proposed budget failed for a second time last week, this time by a mere 16 votes, officials were left to wonder, “How much do we cut now?

Interim Superintendent Dr. Kathleen Beecher cautioned the school board Monday night that a “clear” mandate had not been sent.

“If the margin had been 50 to 150, I would say the message was very clear that taxpayers want to see more cuts,” she said last week. “16 votes, however, is not a mandate.”

The school board decided Monday night to ask the district’s Leadership Team to bring back possible cuts that would produce the “least amount of impact” upon students and programs. After the first budget proposal was rejected, SAD 61 administrators presented the school board with a shopping list that totaled over $300,000 in possible cuts. The board, however, decided to trim back the budget by $172,00.

Taxpayers made the cut a little deeper by tagging on $90,000 (funds that would have supported the Grade 8 Summit — a remedial program to bring students up to proficiency levels before allowing them to move on to high school — which no longer had sufficient student enrollment) at the district budget meeting for a total of $262,000.

Leadership Team recommendations will be discussed at the board’s July 14 meeting, to be held at 7 p.m. at Lake Region Middle School. Directors will then decide whether to make additional cuts. The warrant will be signed on July 18, thus setting up the next district budget meeting for Aug. 9 and referendum vote in the four towns on Aug. 16.

By state law, a school district has 60 days to hold their next budget meeting and validation referendum vote.

In the meantime, SAD 61 will be operating on the budget passed at the district meeting last month, until a new budget is approved by validation vote.

Where to cut?

Sebago Director Richard Merritt heard a clear message at the district meeting and later, taxpayers want to see $125,000 taken from the overall high school renovation/construction project fund to pay for PCB removal rather than money stripped from the general budget.

“I think the voters spoke quite clearly about this. By taking this money out of the budget, there would be no added cuts to programs that would impact students,” he said. “It would be quick, easy and it doesn’t require administrators.”

Casco Director Phil Shane, who serves on the district’s Facilities Committee, said the high school project is already running into possible cost overruns (electrical needs), and SAD 61 is already committed financially to various aspects of the project — including PCB removal, which has been required by federal officials.

Director Janice Barter of Naples pointed out that the $125,000 targets PCB removal involving windows to the backside of the high school, which were not part of the renovation/construction project. The EPA has given SAD 61 two to three years to complete full PCB removal.

Merritt, however, contended that if SAD 61 had reduced funds available, the district would not be in “breach of contract” for work spelled out on a project list if the contractor had yet to begin that particular phase.

Barter reminded Merritt that the high school project had been scaled back from its original $20 million price tag down to $13.8 million, leaving little to no frills.

Over their two-hour meeting, directors pinpointed certain budget lines, such as technology and transportation, that could use more review. Discussion heated to a point that Bridgton Director Leslie Niemy suggested that when the next budget season arrives, it was time to put “everything” on the table for review, including the possibility of closing Sebago Elementary.

“We have a school that has just 100 kids. It’s lovely, but maybe it is something the district can no longer afford,” Niemy said. “We have to look at possible ways that we can cut the budget without having an effect on students and programs.”

Immediately, Merritt responded regarding Sebago Elementary closure talk, “That sounds like extortion.”

Niemy and Merritt agreed it might be time to look at the district’s busing policy. Merritt pointed out that other districts transport all children on one run, unlike SAD 61 which has two runs — one for high school and middle school students, and one for elementary-age children. Merritt said some people wonder why older brothers and sisters can’t ride the same bus as their siblings?

Naples Director Beth Chaplin liked Niemy’s suggestion, adding the school board should take a closer look to see if “so-called savings” of past building closures have indeed been realized. She pointed at Bridgton Memorial, which was closed by SAD 61 and offered to the Town of Bridgton. Shane says Bridgton officials are interested in taking over ownership of the property, but remains in the process of site tests.

Shane added that SAD 61 may need to reopen the school for a short time this fall because construction of the new Bus Garage/Vocational Building is behind schedule. If the facility is not ready by September, some vocational classes may be shifted to Bridgton Memorial, for a short period of time. This would require SAD 61 to “turn on the power and water.”

Other suggestions for possible cuts was for the new assistant superintendent to also serve as Adult Ed director (Adult and Community Ed Director Zane Clement left the post this year).

Last week, directors approved the hiring of Deborah Howard of Sebago as assistant superintendent, succeeding Beecher. Howard, who has worked the past 27 years in the SAD 6 (Bonny Eagle) school system, has served as an assistant principal for several years, Beecher said.

Interim Superintendent Beecher doubted the assistant superintendent could wear both hats, saying the Adult Ed job requires “a different skill set,” especially in the area of grant writing, which Clement “did an outstanding job.”

“I think people would be shocked at the amount of money Zane (Clement) brought in,” Casco Director Donna Norton said. “I would also be concerned about losing the quality we have in this program right now.”

Norton said directors should take a closer look at the supply lines, which she says skyrocketed over the past three years. “I was shocked by the enormous increases,” she said.

Naples Director Erica Pond-Green and Sebago Director Greg Smith encouraged the board to be more focused in their next step, suggesting the board should be specific — such as telling administrators to come up with cuts that would total 1%.

“We’re not getting feedback (from the public), so we’re going to do what we need to do,” she said. “If people get wound up enough, maybe they’ll show up at a meeting.

Stevens Brook Elementary School Principal Cheryl Turpin recommended that the school board make a greater public awareness push about the budget, as well as provide an “accurate” figure regarding per pupil cost.

Under 10%

The overall turnout for last week’s referendum was slightly better than the May vote (8% to 7%).

The total number of registered voters for the four-town school district is 11,466, of which 974 went to the polls. At the May vote, 853 went to the polls as the budget was rejected by a 473-380 margin.

Here’s how the vote went:

Bridgton, 355 voters out of 3,940 (9%), 197 yes, 158 no.

Casco, 204 voters out of 3,216 (7%), 85 yes, 129 no.

Naples, 261 voters out of 2,884 (9%), 131 yes, 130 no.

Sebago, 144 voters out of 1,426 (10%), 66 yes, 78 no.

The bill

Every time a budget is sent to local taxpayers, there is a cost attached.

The price tag for the first referendum held on May 24 totaled $8,674 — the major reason for the hefty cost was the use of electronic ballots, pushing the amount to $4,398.

Here’s the rest of the breakdown:

Printing of the annual report, $2,079

Photocopying of ballots for Sebago, $34

Developing warrants, ballots, etc. (four hours), $92

Postage to deliver warrants, $529

Mileage to deliver warrants, annual reports to post offices and notice of amounts to town offices, $80

Moderator, $50

Town of Naples clerks, $233

Town of Bridgton clerks, $649

Set up of annual report (16 hours), $369

Time delivering warrants (7 hours), $161.

The last referendum held on June 30 carried a bill of $3,741 — a major reduction due to the use of paper ballots, which were developed and printed at the Central Office.

Here’s the breakdown:

Printing of flyer (twice), $1,190

Ballot photocopying (paper cost), $18

Postage for mailing flyer, $537

Town of Naples clerks, $435

Town of Bridgton clerks, $807

Moderator, $50

Mileage to deliver warrants/flyers/notice of amounts, $80

Set-up flyer (8 hours), $184

Developing warrants, ballots and other forms (4 hours), $92

Printing and folding ballots (9 hours), $207.

In house printing of absentee ballots, envelopes (inside and out), $462.

The next referendum vote will again be a paper ballot.

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