WATERVILLE — Waterville Senior High School Principal Brian Laramee’s opinion in a recent school newsletter that some residents have made “uneducated comments” and said “outrageous things” about school spending is drawing criticism from those who say the rhetoric is divisive and insulting to the public.

But School Superintendent Eric Haley said Laramee’s comments about per pupil costs were factual and he sees nothing wrong with them. The high school principal simply was defending the school and funding for it, according to Haley.

The controversy reveals rifts in the city over school spending, coming nearly three months after a contentious budget debate that involved a mayoral veto and ultimately approval of a $37.6 million city and school budget. That approval followed a failed request from the council chairman to restore $250,000 in surplus money the schools had pitched in to help reduce the budget.

Laramee’s article in the Parent Press, a newsletter intended to inform parents of school happenings, discusses Waterville’s per pupil cost as the sixth-lowest in the state and says this year’s budget cuts have hurt morale and decimated course offerings.

He wrote that “conversations taking place in public, at council meetings and online should not be how to make further cuts to our schools to reduce the budget. Instead, those conversations should be about how the citizens of Waterville can replenish the financial resources that have steadily been depleted from our school district over the years!”

Some residents, including Julian Payne and Gary Maheux, supported making cuts to the proposed municipal and school budget before it was approved over the summer, saying people on fixed incomes could not afford such a high tax rate. Payne and Maheux spoke out at Tuesday’s City Council meeting against Laramee’s article in the Parent Press.

Payne, who was one of many people who collected signatures over the summer seeking to repeal the budget because they thought it was too high, said he has no problem with the facts, figures and graphs in Laramee’s article regarding per pupil expenditure; rather, it was the article’s denigrating tone and characterization of Waterville residents who supported cutting the budget that bothers him.

“If you read the whole article, he says the residents are misinformed, made uneducated comments, and he goes on to question our support of the educators and he uses strong comments of a few people to discredit the residents and petitioners,” Payne said before the council meeting.

Laramee did not return a call placed to his office Tuesday afternoon, but his article in the Parent Press says a lot had been discussed about the local cost of education and what should be considered essential in schools.

“Lots of misinformation has been provided and uneducated comments from some citizens have been the norm,” he wrote. “I have heard some citizens say some outrageous things in recent meetings, online and on social media about Waterville schools.”

He goes on to say that the comments are troubling, as the schools are bare-bones and there are a lot of good things happening in them. He cites examples of comments he had heard or read: “Decrease taxes by 5 million, I don’t care how you do it,” “Cut all non-essential programs,” “Cut athletics, make it pay to play,” “Cut transportation to schools, kids can walk,” “Cut administration, they don’t care about kids,” among others.

Payne said he had not heard such comments at council meetings and Laramee could not have been quoting him or Maheux, as they did not say those things; but he believes a school newsletter is “not a place for principals to get involved politically.” The newsletter article set a bad example to youth, particularly those who learned about the democratic process when they accompanied their parents on the petition drive, Payne said.

Haley, the school superintendent, said Tuesday afternoon that Laramee’s statistics about per pupil cost were accurate in the article and Laramee has every right to express his opinion in the Parent Press newsletter.

“I don’t see anything demeaning in there,” Haley said. Later, at the council meeting, Haley reiterated his comment that he saw nothing wrong with Laramee’s comments “other than the attack on people.”

Haley said earlier that he had heard the same comments from the public that Laramee cited in the newsletter.

He said he pays administrators to represent and advocate for the schools and he expects them to advocate hard for those schools, just as someone who produces widgets would expect that a line foreman produce the best quality widgets possible.

“If my high school principal wasn’t defending the high school, I’d be a little bit upset with him,” Haley said.

He added that Laramee sent his article as a memo to the Waterville Board of Education prior to its publication and the board advocated that he try to get it printed in the Parent Press, which he then did.

At the council meeting, Haley said the city is looking at drawing businesses and commerce, but people will not move here if they think there is no support for schools.

“I think we all need to think seriously about that, because this is our future we’re talking about,” he said.

He also said negative debate is not productive and hurts the momentum the city is experiencing now.

“This kind of banter back and forth and this kind of material for the papers and otherwise will slow it down, if not stop it completely,” he said.

Payne said the group of people who petitioned to repeal the city budget formed the People’s Council a few days ago. That council will be ready next year to “protect the residents,” according to Payne.

“It will demand you, councilors, listen to your constituents, not the department heads you work for,” he said. “The People’s Council has no conflict. We don’t receive paychecks, health care or retirement from city departments.”

Payne, Maheux and others this past summer complained that some councilors had a conflict of interest because they have spouses or significant others working for the city and schools and should not be making financial decisions for departments they work for.

Mayor Nick Isgro said Tuesday afternoon that he does not think there is anything wrong with Laramee’s discussing the budget in the Parent Press, but the way he did it was “unfortunate.” It was published after the budget was approved and the rancor of the budget process had been resolved and there was a mutual understanding that schools do spend less per pupil than surrounding communities, Isgro said.

To use comments people made online and in social media to say Waterville residents were making uneducated comments “was a really poor decision — I think it was insulting to the people,” Isgro said.

“I hope that people can air their grievances and we can move forward, though, because we’re going to have another tough year and we have to work together,” Isgro said. “Hopefully, some of this inflammatory rhetoric like what was said can be put aside.”

He said Laramee’s final comments in the article that residents should be talking about how to replenish the money depleted from the budget shows he already has chosen a side in the budget debate, not that people should work together to mutually solve problems by, for instance, discussing how schools are structured and how they could regionalize and share resources.

Mayheux said at the council meeting that a firestorm was created when Laramee “injected himself into the ongoing tax revolt by presenting a one-sided and misleading article” advocating for more money for schools.

He also said “divisiveness and defamation should never be propagated from the principal’s office nor tolerated by the school board. His inflammatory and inaccurate rhetoric has further discredited the principal’s office, during a time when we’re still recovering from the high school’s destructive scandal that divided our school and community.”

He was referring to the firing last year of then-high school principal Don Reiter for allegedly asking a student for sex. Both Maheux and Payne said at the council meeting that Laramee lives in Winslow, where the tax rate is $15.75 per $1,000 worth of valuation, whereas Waterville’s is $22.80. Hardworking people pay Laramee’s salary, including those on fixed incomes, Payne said.

Maheux also criticized Laramee’s comment that people should be talking about replenishing cuts made to budgets, asking aloud if Laramee was proposing property tax increases.

“Perhaps he should walk the wards to see if the residents will accept a mill rate upwards of $25 or more,” Maheux said. “Increasing the mill rate will be devastating to our residents, especially our lower-income students, which will fill the city and whose parents do not qualify for aid.”

He also said residents had no voice in the Parent Press article and students were not taught about the crippling effect of a high tax rate.

“It’s time to get your departmental heads under control and to stop using the school newspaper to inflame and divide our community,” Maheux said.

But Scott Jones, a parent who earlier had announced that donors who gave nearly $400,000 to the high school auditorium renovation project will be thanked at an event Dec. 6, said certain people get up at council meetings and they speak and do not listen.

“There are two sides to every story, but it has to be a two-way street,” Jones said. “I don’t know what the answer is to the budget situation, but to sit there and berate the same point does not bring the community together.”

Jones said Laramee has been great to his family and he was not going to sit there and listen to people besmirch him. He said that while he agrees the tax rate is high, working on it together requires and open mind and a civil dialogue.

At that, Payne said, “If you don’t like it, move to Russia.”

Meanwhile, resident Chris Rancourt said the city is not just for rich people, but also poor people. When he began to talk about name-calling and negative posting on social media, Isgro rapped the gavel on the table and shut Rancourt down.

“We’re not going to have these personal attacks here,” Isgro said.

Rancourt asked: “What would our mill rate be if us idiots didn’t come here and talk?” he asked.

Isgro said no one had called him an idiot.

Councilor Dana Bushee, D-Ward 6, then changed the subject and noted that Councilor Jackie Dupont, D-Ward 7, was to have a baby soon.

“I just wanted to, in case she’s not here at the next meeting, to wish her well and her husband, Zack,” Bushee said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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