WATERVILLE — City councilors voted 6–1 Tuesday to approve a proposed $20.3 million school budget for 2013-14.

Councilor Karen Rancourt-Thomas, D-Ward 7, was the lone dissenter, saying she did not oppose the budget itself; rather, she objected to Gov. Paul LePage’s making municipal officials pass budgets when they have no idea how much state money they will get, whether municipalities will have to help fund teacher retirement and whether the governor’s proposal to suspend state revenue sharing temporarily will stand.

Rancourt-Thomas called the situation a “tragedy.”

“It’s not the budget. I just think we said July 15, and it should be July 15, in my opinion,” she said.

She was referring to the date on which the city initially had planned to hold a referendum on the proposed school budget.

The amount of state funding to municipalities is expected to be known in June.

Last week, councilors voted to hold the referendum June 11 instead of July 15. They said more people are likely to vote in a June referendum because by July, many are away on vacation.

School Superintendent Eric Haley told the council Tuesday that after the referendum date was advanced to June, he took $293,000 out of surplus to put into the proposed budget to pay for teacher retirement in case the Legislature approves LePage’s proposal.

Haley said everything he hears indicates that will not happen, but he knows a lot of compromises are reached and deals swung at the state level and he wants to be prepared. He said he doesn’t want to have to go to City Manager Michael Roy at the last minute and say money must be found to fund teacher retirement.

“If it does pass, then this at least gives us a way to get by it for this year,” Haley said.

Councilor Fred Stubbert, D-Ward 1, asked Haley if he was optimistic he will get more money from the state than expected.

“I’m not optimistic about getting more from the state on anything,” Haley replied.

On the upside, he said, Waterville Senior High School Principal Don Reiter informed him that the high school had received a $75,000 grant to help increase graduation rates.

“There are some wonderful things we’re going to be able to do with that, so that’s encouraging,” Haley said.

Councilors are expected to take two more votes May 21 on the proposed school budget.

Rancourt-Thomas thanked Haley and the Board of Education for keeping costs down, “doing a great job and helping the city.”

Haley said he would pass her comments on to school administrators who did an “unbelievable job at working together to cut $775,000 from the budget” without cutting staff.

“They’ve done wonderful work on that front,” he said.

After the meeting, School Board Chairman Lee Cabana said he was pleased that councilors recognize the schools are in a bad spot and voted to OK the proposal.

“The council has been very reasonable in recognizing that predicament and seem to agree with the need to take this action,” Cabana said. “It’s pretty awful to try to find places in the budget where you can take things away and measure it against the effect on kids — and on staff it’s ancillary, because we don’t want to lose any staff.”

Trimming the budget to bare bones has been difficult, according to Cabana.

“As Eric says, we can open the schools, but it’s not what they’re accustomed to if we keep whacking away at the foundation of our schools,” he said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247
[email protected]

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