When town officials meet Monday to discuss what to do now that voters have rejected an $11.19 million school budget, part of the challenge will be to figure out whether town voters want them to spend more or spend less on education.

Finding a compromise that’s acceptable to a majority of citizens could be difficult, given the financial challenges facing the town and the lingering disagreements among taxpayers about how to fund the local schools.

Some residents and town councilors think the School Department needs to tighten its belt as the town begins to recover from a $1.5 million shortfall that was discovered last summer, and they didn’t think the spending proposal that went to voters on Tuesday was conservative enough.

Others feel strongly that the school system should keep its current programs in place, and have either said they’re willing to pay more in taxes, or urged the School Department to find savings in areas of its budget that don’t affect students.

When the Town Council meets on Monday, it will be focusing on administrative costs, said Sarah Fuller, chairwoman of the council.

In the past, councilors have asked whether the district needs a full-time superintendent or an assistant principal, Fuller said. But while the total amount of school spending is subject to council approval before it goes to voters, the school board decides how to spend the money.

With the rejection of the spending plan Tuesday, the Winthrop School Department will continue to operate under the current year’s $11.2 million budget until a new spending plan can be passed.

The district’s superintendent, Gary Rosenthal, and school board Chairwoman Virginia Geyer did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Rosenthal’s salary this year was $99,584. It will be $101,490 next year, according to a spending proposal on the School Department website.

Since a $1.5 million shortfall was discovered in the school side of the budget last summer, the Town Council and the School Department have clashed over which side was responsible for it.

More recently, the council approved a slightly reduced $6.99 million municipal budget for next year and asked the School Department to draft a $10.9 million school budget, which is about as much as the schools have spent this year. Then the council softened its stance, approving the $11.19 million budget that went to voters on Tuesday.

That budget eliminated a foreign-language teaching position in the middle and elementary schools and reduced an educational technician position from full- to part-time, according to a copy of the cuts on the district website. It also eliminated stipends for plays, foreign-language clubs, field trips and a number of sports teams, including skiing, tennis and unified basketball.

An earlier proposal by the School Department would have eliminated music, arts and other programs to reach the $10.9 million target set by the council, but it drew protest at a meeting in May.

One voter who rejected the school spending proposal this week was Richard Perkins, 73, who has attended many recent budget meetings.

In an interview Wednesday, Perkins said the spending figure that went to voters was misleading because it didn’t indicate that taxpayers must pay an additional $170,000 for nutrition and adult education in the school system.

After implementing a spending freeze, the School Department found nearly $400,000 in savings this year, and Perkins said he thinks it can continue to keep its spending that low next year.

“They proved they could keep the budget down,” said Perkins, who is retired after working for the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety. “With all the financial problems that the town has, … it seems if the municipal budget can come in flat, (the School Department) should be able to. If it means cutting programs, then you need to bite the bullet and make hard choices.”

Then referring to the meeting where students and parents protested the spending cuts, he continued, “I thought that discussion was completely emotional, as opposed to a business-like logical process.”

Perkins isn’t familiar with the intricacies of school financing, he said, but he thinks the School Department should consider measures such as consolidating students into larger classes, even if they don’t align with the district’s long-term goals.

Another Winthrop resident, Nate Rudy, said he also voted against the school spending proposal, but for different reasons. He opposed the cuts it made to arts and individual sports programs, which he sees as invaluable to attracting young families to town.

Rudy has worked as a real estate agent in the past and is now the city manager in Hallowell, but he stressed that he was speaking for himself.

“With so many communities focused on arts and culture as a way to attract a creative economy, the notion that the school system would cut arts and humanities programs seems counterintuitive,” Rudy said.

Rudy also said he hopes town and school officials can provide a clearer explanation of what caused the town’s current shortfall in the first place.

Outside the polls on Tuesday afternoon, several voters said they supported the budget because they wanted to fund the school system, even with its cuts, but they couldn’t match the votes of residents who opposed the spending plan.

According to Town Clerk Lauri Carson, 920 of the town’s 5,014 registered voters cast ballots Tuesday — about an 18 percent voter turnout.

Rita Moran was elected Tuesday to an open seat on the Town Council and was greeting voters outside the polls all day. On Wednesday, she said there seemed to be a low turnout of residents who were likely to support the school budget.

As the Town Council considers another school spending plan, Moran said that she has asked Rosenthal to provide “good, solid statistics” to show the ratio of cost-to-benefit in his proposals.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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