WINTHROP — Voters ended an eight-month process of approving a budget to operate the town’s schools on Tuesday.
By a vote of 382-114, voters approved the budget for the 2013-14 school year, even as school officials have begun to craft a budget for the 2014-15 school year.
“It’s kind of a hung-up affair,” said Robert Letourneau, after casting his vote in favor of the budget. “The school year’s nearly done and we’re just voting on the budget.”
The nearly $10 million budget is about $500 less than the 2012-13 budget. It closely mirrors a proposal town councilors rejected in June 2013 after an auditor flagged problems in more than 20 school spending accounts. Councilors froze spending on the accounts and delayed the budget process until the completion of a more thorough audit, the results of which were presented in September.
The budget process stalled until December, when councilors agreed to send the budget to a public hearing in January. Despite overwhelming support offered during that hearing, councilors rejected the proposal and agreed to send a budget to voters that cut $100,000 from the instruction line item.
Councilors have urged the school board since last summer to revamp the teachers’ contract to force the educators to pay a greater share of their health insurance premiums. Councilors have said the mandate is motivated by the desire for teachers’ plans to be similar to what’s offered to town employees. Winthrop teachers now pay nothing for individual coverage and 15 percent of premiums for plans that include spouses and families.
The School Board met two days later and announced that instead of requiring teachers to pay a larger portion of their health insurance premiums, the budget cut would force the district to lay off as many as 10 teachers.
That number, suggested by school board member Kristin Shumway, was an estimate based on unspecified positions. Shumway said the layoffs would involve a large number of teachers because by the time they occur, the educators already would have been paid for much of the year and the teachers who are laid off would have the least amount of tenure and thus earn less money.
Councilors met the following week and agreed to restore the $100,000 funding and send the budget to the voters.
Julie Meagher, who voted against the budget, was disappointed that the council restored the funding. Despite increased spending over the years, Winthrop produces students who lack basic principles and skills, she said.
“We’re teaching them to take tests instead of knowledge and understanding,” Meagher said. “Kids don’t have social skills. They want instant gratification.”
Meagher also is concerned about cost overruns in the school lunch programs. The school in recent years has borrowed more than $600,000 to cover shortfalls in summer payments to teachers and the lunch program. Meagher said costs have risen as students have been given more options.
“Don’t give them five different choices,” she said. “Why can’t they have the meal that is served?”
Chris Presti, who has a son in kindergarten and a pre-school-age daughter, thinks the schools are doing a good job. Presti said his son is learning and comes home from school happy.
“I worry if we take more from the budget, it will take away programs for the students,” Presti said.
Scott Foster, whose son graduated from the high school, said the flat budget strikes a responsible balance of economic and educational concerns.
“I think that’s all you can ask for in this economy,” he said. “I think they do a good job.”
Scott Eldridge, who lives in Winthrop and works as the business manager for Regional School Unit 4, which includes Litchfield, Sabattus and Wales, said that Winthrop schools have been recognized for their excellence. He commended the board for assuring funding to ensure that excellence will continue without increasing the budget.
“Times are tough,” he said.
Staff Writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.
Craig Crosby — 621-5642 [email protected]