The head of the School Administrative District 49 board defended the district’s proposed $24.8 million budget against criticisms posed by the Fairfield Town Council, a week before residents will vote on the budget at polls in Fairfield, Albion, Benton and Clinton.

Members of Fairfield’s Town Council issued a public statement Monday urging residents to vote down the district budget, which they said could be cut to ease the burden on taxpayers.

School board chairman Steve Grenier said Town Council members are now criticizing the budget after passing up chances to alter it during the budget process.

“The school board has been very frugal with the money and they have several people on the board who are very tax-conscious, myself being one of them,” Grenier said. “I think we’ve done our best.”

Grenier said he couldn’t advocate for a decrease “when it hurts our kids’ education.”

The council scheduled a special meeting to discuss the school budget on Thursday evening, during the district’s high school graduation ceremony.

The proposed budget is $24,777,600, an increase of $1,032,718, or 4.35 percent, over last year’s budget of $23,744,882.

In a letter to the school community, Superintendent Dean Baker said the budget eliminates five and a half full-time equivalent positions from the district’s payroll. The increases, he said, are largely because of a deferred maintenance backlog and changes imposed by the state.

The council’s letter said the proposed school budget would cost Fairfield taxpayers about $191,000 more than they paid toward the current budget.

The letter was signed by all five council members: Chairman Tracey Stevens, Vice-Chairman Harold Murray, Robert Sezak, John Picchiotti and Michael Taylor.

“We’ve found ways of decreasing our budget even in these tough times,” Sezak said.

State education funding

Grenier said he understands the frustration council members might feel when they see an increase to their tax bill.

However, he said, “I think they’re laying their blame on the school district when this all falls on the Legislature.”

Grenier said pressures on the school budget included a reduction of $181,000 in federal Title 1 funding, a requirement that local assessments be increased by $330,000 to maintain eligibility for state funding, and a proposal from Gov. Paul LePage to shift more than $300,000 in teacher retirement costs onto the district. In addition, he said, the district will likely lose an additional $50,000 when students transfer to charter schools.

Grenier said the state has failed to meet a legal mandate to fund 55 percent of public school education and instead is funding 43 percent.

Sezak acknowledged that the district is suffering financially in the down economy, and suggested that voting the budget down would send a message to state legislators.

But the answer, he said, should not be to raise taxes on local property owners.

“I think the school districts should sue the state, quite frankly,” he said.

Grenier said the suggestion was laughable, because, he said, it is illegal to sue the state without the state’s consent.

Suggested cuts

Sezak and Murray said they want a flat school budget, and made several suggestions on cuts, which Grenier responded to.

Sezak suggested cutting sports programs at the district, which Grenier said he would favor if it was the public consensus, but he did not feel the community would support the elimination of the programs.

Murray said the amount the district is spending on maintenance in the proposed budget, about $4.2 million, is excessive.

Grenier said the district is already delaying maintenance projects that have the potential to cause damage to buildings, including a roof in poor condition at Clinton Elementary School.

“We’re taking a chance this year. We are delaying that roof,” he said. “If it gets worse, what if it ruins the gym? What do we do with the displaced kids?”

He said council members made no effort to reduce the budget during a district budget meeting last week at which the budget passed by a large margin of the 115 voters in attendance.

“If they want to put in a letter to refute the budget, they didn’t offer any suggestions to change it,” he said.

He also said council members haven’t attended any of the district’s finance and budget meetings and workshops, which have been ongoing since January.

“Each town official has been invited to attend these meetings to give their input,” he said. “No one showed up. Not one person.”

Fewer students, fewer staff

Murray said the district budget has grown even while the student population has shrunk.

“They’re carrying less people now,” Murray said.

Murray and Sezak both suggested the district could save money by cutting administrative staff.

During the past five years, Grenier said, the student population, about 2,300 students, has decreased by 178, while at the same time, the number of teachers and staff, once roughly 400, was reduced by 55, an number that he said more than accommodated the loss of students.

Grenier said the administrator-to-student ratio is slightly under the minimum recommended by the state to run a school, with the district now spending $8,917 per student, about $800 less than the state average of $9,276.

Murray said the key to a quality education is not the amount spent per student, but hiring the right people.

“I don’t think money is the answer. I think it’s personnel. It’s the person you put in the job,” he said.

Meeting is Thursday

The special meeting the council scheduled to discuss the budget and referendum is for 7:15 p.m. Thursday in the community center. The meeting will overlap with the district’s graduation ceremonies, which begin at 6 p.m.

Last year, the school budget passed in the district-wide referendum 1,047-632, including in Fairfield, where it passed 376-247.

Referendum voting will be noon to 7 p.m., Tuesday, in the Albion Town Office; from noon to 8 p.m. in the Benton Town Office; from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the Clinton Town Office; and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the Fairfield Town Office.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
[email protected]

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