FAIRFIELD — The School Administrative District 49 school board pledged to take a broad look at cuts to its proposed school budget after receiving more than an hour of input and suggestions from a small group of voters at an informational session Tuesday night.

“You’ve given us a lot of items, of cuts to look over in this budget. We will consider and talk about each and every one of them,” said School Board Chairman Steven Grenier, of Albion. “We will do our best to try and accommodate some of these cuts, or as many as we can.”

On May 19, a majority of voters in Albion, Clinton, Fairfield and Benton, the four towns covered by SAD 49, rejected a $25.9 million budget proposed by the school board in a 447-284 referendum vote. About 7 percent of the 9,981 registered voters in the four towns took part in the ballot referendum.

“You have shown us clearly by your vote that we cannot sustain this increase, and you have our word that we will look at as many items as possible with the least amount of damage,” Grenier said.

The budget would have increased about $781,150, roughly 3 percent, over the previous year’s budget and would have caused property tax to rise as high as 10 percent. The proposed spending plan included almost $694,000 in contracted wage raises for teachers, but school board members have blamed the real increase on cost shifts from the state, including $382,000 in payments to the Maine State Retirement system and an increase in the amount of local funds needed to receive financial aid. At the same time, the district expects to receive an estimated $412,000 less in state aid this year.

On Monday evening, voters asked the board to think creatively about where it could make cuts to the budget.

Stephanie Thibodeau, a Fairfield town councilor, presented the board with $1.2 million in across-the-board cuts that included office supplies, administrative positions, new vehicle purchases and communications costs but would spare education and extracurricular activities.

“My feeling is, when times are tough, everyone should take a hit and tighten up their belts, and all the little tightening will add up,” she told the board.

Last week, in reaction to the result of the vote, Grenier and school board Vice Chairwoman Shelley Rudnicki said they would suggest targeting extracurricular activities for cuts. Grenier said he would be looking for $100,000 in cuts from non-educational programs, including sports.

His remarks raised tempers in a district with a well-known dedication to high school athletics. At a May 21 school board meeting, an angry member of the public demanded that Grenier and Rudnicki resign, while others told the board to consider the lifelong lessons that students could learn from team sports.

The atmosphere at Tuesday’s session was less confrontational. Several voters, including Lucy Stewart of Fairfield, suggested the board should look for cuts in administrative positions, including assistant principals and the assistant superintendent.

“I think we are top-heavy,” considering a declining student population, Stewart said.

Others asked the board to think “outside the box” on how it could save money.

Lars Johnson, of Albion, said the board should think about limiting the distances junior varsity teams travel to play games. The district could save transportation costs by keeping teams close, not going as far away as Oxford Hills in South Paris or Brunswick.

“No matter what you do, me and my wife will support this budget, because we believe in education,” Johnson said.

But Jeff Marshall, of Fairfield, said the board had to consider making difficult choices, including looking at closing or consolidating schools.

The board had to start making “bold” choices because taxpayers in the district, and particularly in Fairfield, no longer could afford to pay for yearly tax increases, Marshall said.

“Frankly, we have a lot of citizens that are tapped out here,” he said.

Fairfield Town Manager Josh Reny said his concern was that even if the board changed the budget to make it “palatable” to voters this year, it would be a Band-Aid, and the district could be faced with another $1 million shortfall next year. “We need to be asking the question, is the district as it is organized today sustainable?” Reny said.

The school board is expected to meet again on Thursday at Lawrence Junior High School in Fairfield to discuss the budget. A district budget meeting is scheduled for Thursday, June 11, to be followed by a second districtwide referendum on June 16.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire


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