GARDINER — Elected officals from the Gardiner-area school district and its member communities met for two hours Monday to talk about opening up lines of communication and establishing an understanding about the duties and roles of their elected boards.

“It’s like comparing apples and fruit salad,” SAD 11 school board Chairwoman Becky Fles said after the meeting ended. “We’re accountable for every penny we spend, but with much deeper regulation.”

The meeting came about at the request of Gardiner municipal elected officials, who at the close of budget season earlier this year, wanted to have a better understanding of the school district budget.

That budget, developed by an independently elected school board, goes before voters in the district to be approved, and the portion attributed to each of the communities is sent to taxpayers on the municipal tax bill.

At the end of budget season, news of additional state aid to the district prompted questions about how that money would be used.

Following a review of requirements imposed on the school district by state law, and the details of the complicated school funding formulas, school district board member Carrie Boudway said the school district’s job is to tell people what educating a child costs.

Arriving at that, Boudway said, “is complicated and it’s boring.”

“The hard thing is that the news isn’t good,” Fles said, “and we come out with the bad news that (education) costs money.”

The problem, one that faces many public boards, including municipal boards, is the lack of participation by members of the public.

Gardiner Mayor Thom Harnett said the school district does a good job of getting information to the city council, but he sees that public participation is lacking.

Having people attend school board meetings is critical, he said.

“It would be up to us to get our residents to do that,” Harnett said.

“It’s having a conversation about global concerns and understanding the school board has the responsibility to pass the budget. It’s hard to get to all the meetings, but I do think maybe one time, at whatever time in the process, when the budget’s not fully cooked, to present to the commuities to give input about their concerns. We send the tax bill out. When the residents get it, they look at the mill rate and what they are paying they don’t see what is the school budget. They come to us to complain.”

Eric Jermyn, who heads up the school board’s finance committee, said that’s not a practical approach because of how much the budget proposal changes from week to week during that time, and the information shared with one town one week might differ greatly from what’s share with a different town the next week.

For their part, district officials said they are transparent in what they do. Financial information is posted on their website, they videotape meetings and post them on Youtube for residents to watch.

And this year Superintendent Patricia Hopkins said the district introduced a smartphone app to push out information about the school district.

“I think we try to be as transparent as possible, but I wish more people would attend,” school board member Deb Couture said.

Couture is from West Gardiner, where her husband Greg Couture is the chairman of the three-member Board of Selectmen.

Greg Couture noted that in West Gardiner, the school budget is 70 percent of the tax bills that town residents pay.

Gardiner District 2 Councilwoman Patricia Hart urged the district to do all it can to reach out to district residents, who are often not well-informed about the process.

Greg Couture, of West Gardiner, said putting school district meetings on town municipal calendards might be a way of letting residents know what’s happening.

“We really try hard to get the information out there,” Deb Couture said.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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