WINSLOW — The Town Council’s decision last week to cut $97,000 from the school budget sparked sharp criticism from the school superintendent for the councilor who proposed the cuts, revealing simmering frustration about how to keep spending and taxes low without hurting school or municipal services.

In addition, the controversy prompted Winslow school board member Nancy Aldrich to resign hastily and led to a private meeting between school and municipal leadership to ease tensions.

In an email sent April 16, schools Superintendent Eric Haley blasted Town Councilor Ken Fletcher for proposing the $97,000 budget cut the council approved. In his email, obtained Thursday by the Morning Sentinel, Haley suggested that Fletcher had pitted departments against each other and asked whether “you do not trust my administration to present an authentic picture of the financial needs” facing the schools.

In an interview Thursday, Aldrich said that Haley’s email was the last straw in a frustrating budget season. She replied back the same day as Haley’s email, announcing her resignation.

Winslow is part of Alternative Organizational Structure 92, which also includes Waterville and Vassalboro. The three towns share central office administration under the AOS but have independent budgets and school boards.

Haley copied his emailed comments to the entire school board, the Town Council, the AOS administration and some staff members at Winslow schools and the Town Office.

In an interview Thursday, Haley said the email wasn’t sent in anger, but he wanted to put into writing the issues he brought up at council budget workshops, where he disagreed with Fletcher’s reasoning for further cuts to the school budget.

“There was probably a little frustration, because I disagreed with the logic he used for the reductions,” Haley said, adding that the email “wasn’t meant to be personal.”

In his email, Haley said the school board was “disappointed and concerned” with the April 13 council vote to approve a budget amendment proposed by Fletcher that keeps the property tax rate flat, partially by cutting the proposed $14.2 million school budget by $97,000.

Haley said Town Manager Michael Heavener told him the council would accept the budget he presented to the council on April 1, which would have raised the tax rate by 26 cents per $1,000 of property valuation, but that Fletcher changed his mind on the weekend after the workshop.

Haley went on to defend the school board’s budget and criticize Fletcher’s comparison of actual school spending to budget requests to justify his cuts.

“The decision to cut the school’s budget by looking at past years is like driving one of our old buses by looking in the rearview mirror,” Haley said.

School budgeting is volatile, and Fletcher was giving “little to no consideration” to projected revenue loss and the “hard work” of the board and administration to bring responsible budgets to the council, Haley wrote.

Haley also suggested Fletcher was targeting education over other town departments, pointing to his agreement with an increase in the police budget. Although agreeing with the town hiring new police officers while the school district paid more of the cost of a school resource officer, he found it “distasteful to pit one town department against another,” Haley wrote.

SCHOOL BOARD UPSET

The superintendent also wrote that the school board further took “umbrage” with Fletcher’s “innuendos” that it purposely built overages and slush funds into its budget instead of the “accolades and appreciation” he believed it deserved for holding the line on spending.

“Your actions and words regarding the school’s budget and the work being done by the Board and my administrative team are divisive,” Haley said.

Concluding the email, Haley said that while he appreciated Fletcher’s interest in the school budget, “I am less than lukewarm to the way you do it.”

On Thursday, Fletcher said he was surprised to receive Haley’s email and the language the superintendent used, but he didn’t take it personally.

“I’ve got pretty thick skin,” said Fletcher, a former state legislator. “It didn’t really bother me, but I was surprised by its tone.”

Fletcher said he requested a meeting with Haley, Heavener, Council Chairman Gerald Saint Amand and School Board Chairman Ronald Whary to address the email. The private meeting, held Tuesday at the Town Office, was “productive,” Fletcher said.

“Hopefully, we reached an understanding on how communications should be directed,” Fletcher said. One of his first questions for Haley was why the superintendent didn’t call him on the phone to address his concerns instead of an email.

Haley said in an interview he sent an email because his message was for the entire council, even though it was addressed to Fletcher.

“I think it was a summation” of what he had said to councilors at budget workshops, Haley said, adding that he did not regret having sent the email.

BOARD MEMBER QUITS

However, school board member Aldrich was concerned enough by Haley’s email to send back a response announcing her immediate resignation.

“As a Winslow board member I find it disconcerting that you would speak for me without my approval,” Aldrich wrote.

“I have taken the responsibility given to me by the people of my district very seriously, but I feel I can no longer participate as a board member and therefore, please accept my resignation effective immediately,” she added.

Aldrich said she felt that the school administration did not communicate proposed cuts presented at the April 1 council workshop and was dismayed when administrators did not attend the council meeting on April 13.

Haley and AOS 92 Finance Director Paula Pooler already had been scheduled to attend a Waterville City Council meeting on April 13 and did not expect to have to defend the Winslow budget again, Haley said.

The administration knew the budget it initially proposed was too big for Winslow taxpayers to stomach, Aldrich said, and she was dismayed to see how much was cut out in two reductions before the board voted on it on March 23.

“There must have been a lot of fat in it if they could cut that much out of it,” she said, adding that the administration should have come in with a lean budget at the start.

The superintendent said he was asked by the Winslow council two days before the April 1 workshop to put together more education cuts, but said he didn’t have enough lead time to schedule an emergency board meeting to discuss the issue, so he understood why Aldrich would feel uninformed, Haley said.

All involved said Aldrich’s decision to resign from the school board was a surprise. Other board members and Haley said she had not communicated her budget concerns to them.

“If she wants to resign, she should resign. That’s up to her,” said Whary, the school board chairman.

Earl Coombs, another school board member, noted that the budget process was changed years ago to reduce contention between the board and the council and give more time to make cuts if needed, and he didn’t think it operated differently this year.

He also didn’t feel left out of the loop by administrators.

Although he was unhappy with the budget cuts, the school board and the council have had a good working relationship for years, Coombs added.

“I hope that continues,” he said.

The board will meet again at 6 p.m. Monday at Winslow Junior High School to determine how to accommodate the $97,000 cut mandated by the Winslow Town Council, which can reduce the total amount to be appropriated but not individual budget line items.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire


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