WATERVILLE — The Waterville Board of Education on Wednesday will host an informational forum on the school budget to help explain how it is developed and what taxpayer funds are used for in schools.

The meeting, being billed as a “community educational forum,” is scheduled to be held at 6 p.m. in Trask Auditorium at Waterville Senior High School.

“We’re going to talk about what our schools do and what it takes to do what we do in our schools and where we stand, education-wise,” said Sara Sylvester, chairman of the Board of Education. “We want to talk about what it costs, what it takes to have great teachers. We want to pay our teachers, and we want to stay within a budget and we’ve been very good with our budgets.”

Sylvester said Monday that this is the first time the board has hosted such a forum prior to developing a budget, but members decided to do so after last year’s contentious budget season in which a group of people attended city meetings and expressed concern and unhappiness with the budget.

The long budgeting season ended in mid-August last year when city councilors voted 6-1 to approve a proposed $37.6 million municipal and school budget for 2016-17 that reduced the tax rate by $5 from $27.80 per $1,000 of valuation to $22.80.

The vote followed a failed request from then-Council Chairman John O’Donnell, D-Ward 5, to restore $250,000 in surplus money the schools had pitched in to help reduce the budget from an original $38 million budget. The council approved that budget July 5, but Mayor Nick Isgro vetoed it the next day. The council voted to override his veto July 19, but on Aug. 1 the council voted to repeal the override and open budget talks again.

More than 70 residents, including school administrators, Waterville Board of Education members, business people and others packed the council chambers, where O’Donnell proposed an amendment to the proposed budget, asking that the $250,000 in surplus be returned to it. He said schools in the last five years had met their budgets by taking an average of $250,000 a year out of surplus to pay their bills and offered to do so again, bringing the city’s surplus down to 11.9 percent of the annual budget when the council’s policy is to keep it at 12 percent.

The schools did that after making cuts of $300,000 or $400,000, which included teachers and school supplies, he said. Even school officials said using the surplus was fiscally irresponsible, according to O’Donnell. He emphasized that Waterville’s cost per student is $12,000, which is lower than the state average and that of area towns. The council rejected O’Donnell’s amendment 5-2 after a long debate and objections from the public. Had O’Donnell’s amendment passed, the tax rate would have been $23.15 per $1,000 of assessed value.

At the same time because of a recent citywide revaluation, many taxpayers faced property tax increases, some saw reductions and some people’s taxes remained the same.

City resident Jessica Laliberte, a member of the Planning Board, filed an affidavit with the city clerk’s office July 22 saying residents would collect petition signatures to repeal the council’s override of Isgro’s budget veto, and 850 signatures were collected. The petition, which needed 857 verified signatures of registered city voters, became moot when the council reopened the budget Aug. 1.

Members of a group that calls itself the People’s Council argue that the city’s tax base has shrunk, expenditures have grown and residents can not withstand a heavier tax burden.

People’s Council member Julian Payne told the City Council prior to budget approval last August that returning $250,000 risked a mayoral veto and another petition drive. He said the revaluation increased the tax burden for more than 33 percent of residents, many of whom were elderly and struggling to meet basic needs while paying city employees’ salaries.

Members of the People’s Council have said they will monitor budget meetings this year in an effort to ensure the tax rate does not grow beyond its current status of $22.80 per $1,000 of valuation.

Sylvester said Monday that School Superintendent Eric Haley will give a presentation at Wednesday’s forum.

“We want to give information to people so they know what our budget is, what it buys and what taxpayers are paying for in education,” she said.

The City Council and School Board typically start budget discussions in March and consider approving budgets in early summer.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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