WINTHROP — As town and school officials start to draft their spending plans for next year, they’re trying to avoid a repeat of the contentious, drawn-out budget negotiations that happened in 2017.

During a meeting last week, members of the Town Council and leaders of the Winthrop School Department sat around tables and, after offering personal introductions that were meant to break the ice, had a free flowing discussion about their spending priorities for the years ahead.

Members of the School Board also sought direction from the councilors about what size of school budget they would be willing to pass. But Sarah Fuller, chairwoman of the Town Council, said that the group hadn’t yet developed concrete spending figures for next year.

Instead, the officials used the meeting to brain storm about the town’s overall financial needs. The spirit was congenial, with homemade cookies being passed around and about a dozen people in the audience. Several officials said they hoped it would lead to smoother budget negotiations.

Town Manager Ryan Frost and members of the council identified a number of high-priority infrastructure projects facing the town, including the repaving of roads, the replacement of trailers at the transfer station, and a repair of the Maranacook Lake outlet dam.

In coming years, the town also hopes to replace some of the vehicles used by the fire and police departments, and Frost suggested that new computers may be required in the town office.

“The computers are kind of outdated,” said Frost, who became town manager last year after heading the police department. “People complain about the (computers at the) police department, but they are high-tech compared to the town office.”

School officials also prepared a list of costs facing the district. Some items on that list were standard fare, such as pay raises for teachers and increased rates for health insurance and heating fuel.

By the 2019-2020 school year, the district will also need to create more space to accommodate young children who have attended a state-run pre-kindergarten program for children with special needs.

That program has been offered at regional centers, but the state has decided to relocate the students to local school districts, according to Gary Rosenthal, superintendent of the Winthrop School Department. That would require the Winthrop schools to find classroom space for about 15 additional students.

Rosenthal also mentioned a more unusual spending item: this year, the district has already paid more than double what it budgeted for the transportation of students who have lost their homes for various reasons and been forced to move to other communities.

Even though some of those dislocated students now live as far away as Lewiston-Auburn, federal law allows them to keep studying in Winthrop, and the district must pay some of the cost to transport them to the local schools. The district set aside just $3,000 for that purpose this year, but has already spent close to $7,000 on it, according to Rosenthal.

“Obviously, we’re going to go over-budget for this school year,” Rosenthal said during an interview last week. “It’s a difficult situation right now. I think all those kids have rides and opportunities to get here, and to be honest, most of them, their attendance is very good. We use anything we can to get them here: buses, taxis, school department vans.”

What programs and projects ultimately get funded in the coming years is still an open question, and one that won’t be answered for several months.

The Town Council has ultimate approval power over the municipal budget. It must also approve the total amount of the school budget before it goes to voters for referendum. But the School Board decides how to spend what’s in the school budget.

Last year’s budget negotiations were long and contentious, in part because school officials made spending proposals that were greater than what councilors had asked for early in the spring, then had to reluctantly make cuts before the budget was finally approved by councilors and voters.

One reason the council rejected the greater school spending was because the town is trying to recover from a $1.5 million deficit that was discovered more than a year ago in the School Department’s finances.

Town and school officials have each blamed the other side for the funding mistake that created the shortfall. Last month, an auditor advised local officials that the town could recover from the deficit in three years, assuming no unexpected challenges arise.

At the meeting last week between town and school officials, Virginia Geyer, chairwoman of the School Board, asked councilors to provide an upper limit for how much funding they’d be willing to place in next year’s school budget, and she offered a tentative suggestion that school spending increase by 2 percent next year.

“We don’t want those confrontational meetings that we had before,” Geyer said. “It’s our job to decide the priorities of the programming and where the funding goes. That’s our job to do, and we’re going to do a better job than we did last year of doing that. But we want to know that when we come, it’s going to be acceptable, and at what you think you can fund as a town.”

Fuller, the chairwoman of the council, said that the group wasn’t ready to set any numbers for next year’s budgets. In a follow-up interview, Fuller also noted that, as with many communities, Winthrop won’t be able to fund all its needed projects in the coming years.

“It’s still a pretty serious fiscal situation,” she said, referring to the deficit. “It calls for constraints and priorities, spending and tax increases, a mix of everything.”

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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