WINTHROP — The school board has approved a 2013-14 budget that would increase spending by 0.58 percent without increasing taxes, but that may not be low enough for the Town Council.

Superintendent Gary Rosenthal said the district cut about $90,000 from the $10 million budget in the past week, which was as much as he thought was responsible but still $200,000 short of what councilors requested last week.

“It comes down to signature programs,” he said. “Do we really want to eliminate art, music, the things that Winthrop is really known for, and athletics? That’s what we have left, and I don’t want to go there.”

The council is scheduled to vote on the Winthrop public schools budget on Monday. If it passes then, it will go to a public referendum on June 11.

The school budget originally included about $290,000 in revenue from the designated fund balance, which school officials described as money already appropriated for the School Department to spend when past budgets were approved. The money would keep taxes flat by offsetting spending increases such as the $117,372 the district must pay into the state teacher retirement fund, a new requirement in Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed biennial budget. The district has used money from the designated fund balance for at least five years to pay summer salaries, including $236,871 in this year’s budget; but last week councilors told school officials to reduce that to zero.

To follow the councilors’ instructions and keep the budget tax-neutral, school officials would have to cut $290,000 from the budget, on top of $240,000 in cuts already made in the last few months. Rosenthal said the council is changing the rules at the 11th hour.

Council Chairman Kevin Cookson said the money does not exist and would have to come out of the town’s surplus, which is already so low that it would cover only one month’s worth of expenses, rather than three months as recommended by the town’s auditor.

However, Rosenthal said the district’s attorney and an accountant from the same firm that did the town’s audit, RHR Smith & Co., said Winthrop schools are acting in accordance with their past practice and common practice among Maine school districts.

Using money from the designated fund balance to pay for summer salaries until revenue starts coming in from other sources is a debt, Rosenthal said, but it won’t affect the town surplus unless the district goes bankrupt and can’t pay its debts.

Rosenthal and Cookson both said confusion or misuse of terminology could be a factor in the dispute.

The additional $90,000 in cuts made in the last week include savings from rebidding the maintenance contract, the elimination of a kindergarten-through-grade 12 technology integrator job and a half-time reduction in the middle school guidance counselor’s hours.

Rosenthal also proposed cutting the hours of Winthrop Middle School Principal Karen Criss by 20 percent to save about $20,000, but the board rejected that Tuesday after hearing from several parents who praised Criss and said they value having a full-time principal at the school.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
[email protected]

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