As part of its goal of increasing property taxes as little as possible next year, the Winthrop Town Council has asked the town’s School Department to cut an estimated $800,000 from its spending.

Because of a budgeting error that has left the department with a shortfall of more than $700,000, the council sees that cut as necessary to bring the department’s funding to an adequate level.

But Gary Rosenthal, the school superintendent, said he is “concerned” that such a large cut — on top of a spending freeze that already has been in effect this year and other rising costs such as health insurance — could undermine the quality of the school district.

The council made its request this week at a regular meeting, ahead of a series of workshops by town and school officials about next year’s budgets.

“I know that’s a very harsh reality, especially in light of the excellent programming and results that we’re having,” Council Chairwoman Sarah Fuller told Rosenthal at Monday night’s meeting, after saying the council is expecting an $11.2 million school budget for next year. “But it’s the political reality … of the fiscal situation.”

A budgeting error from two years ago has short-funded the school budget by more than $700,000 and led to considerable acrimony between town and school officials. Last summer, voters approved an $11.2 million school budget for the current year, but that budget was, in effect, more expensive because of the revenue shortage.

“We’re not getting those revenues that we originally thought were going to be in the budget,” Fuller said Monday. “We don’t have that, so (next year’s spending) is going to have to be lower.”

Though the School Department has not accepted blame for the shortfall, it has tried to make up for it by imposing a spending freeze this year, along with other measures.

On top of that freeze, it will be difficult for the department to cut even more spending, according to Rosenthal.

“We’re obviously concerned because the (town’s) auditor, in some previous conversations, had recommended that we try to recoup the shortage over a two- or three-year period through an increase in taxes,” Rosenthal said in an interview. “When we heard that things should stay flat, that obviously raised some eyebrows.”

In the coming weeks, Rosenthal said, the school board will be drafting its budget ahead of a May 1 presentation to the Town Council.

“I do think that we’re going to provide to the district and to the Town Council and to the community as tight a budget as we possibly can, which we do every year,” Rosenthal said. “But knowing that we had to make significant cuts this year, and that the Legislature is looking at additional cuts in (state funding to school districts), we’re going to continue to build a budget that we think is prudent. …You can’t sustain the school district at the level we’ve been at by making those kinds of cuts. We’re not going to cut academics. We’re not going to cut instruction. If it comes to the bottom line, that’s what our mission is.”

At the Town Council meeting this week, Town Manager Peter Nielsen also handed out copies of his proposed town budget — which includes no increases from the current year’s $7 million budget — and one councilor, Richard Henry, announced that he was resigning.

After the meeting, Henry said he and his family are moving to Tennessee, where he has accepted a job at a factory. Henry used to work at the Verso Corp. paper mill in Jay.

Henry’s seat will remain empty until an election in June, according to rules in the town charter, Nielsen said this week. Nomination papers are now available for that seat, as well as the seat that opened when Councilor David Bubier died in January. The council appointed Bubier’s wife, June Bubier, to hold his seat until the June election.

Nielsen’s proposed budget includes $10,000 for an engineering study of road improvements on Memorial Drive; $5,700 for increased maintenance efforts at Norcross Point; and $40,000 for a repair of the Maranacook Lake outlet dam, which the town jointly manages with Readfield.

Though the council has approved building an $1.8 million fire station this summer, that project will be paid for with a mix of grants and loans. The first loan repayment will be due in the 2018-2019 fiscal year, Nielsen said.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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