FAIRFIELD — The Town Council passed a resolution Thursday evening that renewed its call for residents to vote down the local school district budget.

While most residents attending the special council meeting voiced support for the council’s position, one slammed the council for scheduling the meeting at the same time as the School Administrative District 49 graduation ceremonies.

The resolution’s language was identical to that of a joint letter the council released earlier this week, in which it noted that the district’s proposed budget would push the town’s property tax, currently $19.70 per $1,000 in assessed value, to more than $20 for every $1,000 in assessed value.

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.

“We really mean no disrespect to SAD 49. We just wanted things clarified to understand the budget. We need to trust the people that are handling the finances,” Council Vice Chairman Jim Murray said.
Councilor Robert Sezak read aloud the resolution, which was signed unanimously by council members John Picchiotti, Sezak, Michael Taylor, Murray, and Chairwoman Tracy Stevens.

Murray called for the school district to increase transparency to its budget process by posting detailed budget information on the district’s website.

Murray acknowledged the scheduling conflict during a statement early in the meeting.

“The school board and (School Superintendent) Baker is not here to defend themselves,” he said.
One resident, Steve Hunt, blasted the board for scheduling the meeting during the school’s graduation ceremony.

“The timing of this meeting stinks,” he said. “It seems like you’re using the same kind of slimy tactics that goes on in Augusta. Pouncing on the school board at the last minute is not fair.”

Stevens said the meeting had been scheduled not to conflict with the graduation ceremony, but to accommodate the council’s own scheduling logistics, which she noted included giving proper notice to the public.

“We all had difficult work schedules as well,” she said.

“This was unfortunately the only night every one of us could attend the meeting and be present,” Picchiotti said.

Hunt said that through conversations with individual board members, his understanding was that the conflict was an oversight.

“I understand that the council did this more out of ignorance than malice,” he said.

“Absolutely,” Stevens responded, agreeing that the conflict was unintentional.

Hunt also said the board had used inaccurate information to support its position. Board members have said that every elementary school in the district has principals and assistant principals.

“There’s no principal at Clinton Elementary School,” he said. “My faith is greatly reduced by the fact that you’re not dealing with reality.”

Several of the 10 people in attendance voiced support for the board’s position.

Councilor Michael Taylor derided the idea, put forth recently by School Board Chairman Steve Grenier, that cutting the district’s budget would result in a worsened education for students.

“I find this a rather lame and overused excuse,” Taylor said. “You don’t have to hurt the kids when you cut the budget.”

Taylor said property tax increases hurt the elderly and poor among the town’s residents.

Picchiotti said that he would like to see a better relationship between the school board and the town council, something that he said could be achieved if each was more active in the other’s budget process.

“We need to look at them both in the same light,” he said.

Murray said that he has learned in previous years that district administrators are not responsive to input from council members.

Superintendent Dean Baker has said the school budget is responsible, and eliminates 5 1/2 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, which include a proposed cost shift of more than $300,000.

Stevens answered an observation by Grenier that council members had failed to attend a series of budget meetings that extended back to April. Grenier also said council members introduced no amendments to reduce the budget at school’s district budget meeting, at which about 115 residents voted to send the budget to the polls.

“It is very hard for council members to stand up and make any difference at a meeting that is full of teachers and school administrators,” Stevens said. “Even if we had made an amendment to reduce the budget, it wouldn’t have passed.”

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

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

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