WINSLOW — A proposed $97,000 cut to the town’s education budget was averted Monday when the town council approved a $21.3 million budget that draws on municipal and school department surplus to avoid a property tax increase.

The council voted last month to approve an amendment to the education budget proposed by Councilor Ken Fletcher to remove $97,238 in funding in order to keep the town’s tax rate flat. The action sparked a backlash from the school board and AOS 92 administration, and school board members voted two weeks ago to reject the cuts.

At the meeting Monday, Fletcher suggested the school board increase the amount of money it intended to take from its undesignated fund balance, essentially the cash it has on hand, to replace the money in the budget. The funds may be replaced if additional education funding currently being considered by the state Legislature is approved, Fletcher said.

In addition, Fletcher proposed an amendment to use another $116,000 of the town’s undesignated fund to cover tax revenue the town lost because of enrollment in the state’s Business Equipment Tax Exemption, or BETE, program. According to Town Manager Michael Heavener, the town lost approximately $7 million in property tax valuation because of the BETE program.

The council had already considered using $856,000 from its $5.8 million fund balance to offset property taxes. The town’s tax rate is $15.50 per $1,000 in property valuation and has not changed in seven years.

Fletcher’s proposal followed almost an hour of testimony from school board members and district staff, urging the town council to replace the cuts.

If approved, the cuts were likely to be taken out of funding for text books and a new school bus.

Addressing the Council, Winslow Junior High School Principal Kevin Michaud held up three worn mathematics textbooks. The books, copyrighted in 1998, should instruct two classes at the school but were so out of date that teachers wouldn’t use them, Michaud said. Instead, teachers used publicly-available material to instruct the classes, he said, and in many cases, parents have complained that they cannot help their children with their homework because there is no textbook for the class.

Chad Bell, the principal for Winslow High School, said he was trying to budget $20,000 for books for advanced placement courses because the school does not have any. Some students from more affluent families could afford to buy their own books, which cost more than $100, but he believed there were other students who were unable to afford the expense.

“We’re forcing them to buy their own textbooks,” Bell said. “That’s ridiculous.”

Members of the school board also voiced support for the budget and for the AOS 92 administration.

Earl Coombs, a school board member for 10 years, said the budget prepared by the board didn’t include things the schools really needed, like funding for an architectural study of the junior high school.

“What you see in front of you is nowhere near what the needs of the school department are,” Coombs said.

Board Member Joel Selwood said the school department budgets in recent years had been very responsible. The district had lost at least 11 positions since 2010 and were poised to lose three more in the proposed budget, Selwood said.

“We’re living within our means with what our expenses are,” but the state has shifted costs, including funding for teacher retirement, over to local school districts, he said.

Others lauded the quality of Winslow schools and urged the council to reconsider the cuts.

But if a move for the state to provide more education funding this year is approved as expected, the issue might be moot for this year, said Superintendent Eric Haley.

The Legislature is considering adding between $20 million and $28 million in general purpose aid for education to the state budget, he said. The school department could use more of its cash reserves to avoid the cuts and replace it with state aid if and when it comes through, he said.

The school department is already using $200,000 of the $526,000 fund balance and expects to use up to $49,000 more to cover increases in tuition in the coming year, Haley said.

Even though some might not believe it, he and Fletcher had the same proposal to solve the budget problem, Haley said.

Although most of the council was receptive to using more reserves to prevent a tax increase, Councilor Ray Caron was staunchly opposed to the idea, calling it “fiscally irresponsible.”

Using the town’s undesignated fund was a “band aid” that didn’t do anything to address the overall situation, Caron said. Eventually the town would have to increase property taxes, he said.

Caron was the only councilor in attendance who voted against both the amendment and the budget itself.

Although he supported the budget amendment, Council Chairman Gerald Saint Amand also warned that the town would have to consider raising the tax rate at some time.

“Eventually, there will come a day when we cannot continue to raid our fund balance to fund town operations,” Saint Amand said.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire


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