WINSLOW — The Town Council and School Board will meet Monday evening for their first budget workshop of the year one week after tensions between members of the two bodies flared over the proposal to renovate the elementary and high schools.

The two governing groups’ top priority will be reconciling their respective budgets, but the financial impact of the bond proposal to close the junior high school and create new space to accommodate the sixth, seventh and eighth grades in the elementary and high schools, as well as the looming dissolution of Alternative Organizational Structure 92, will likely be a part of that equation as they attempt to reconcile their respective positions so that they can give voters a clear picture of what they will be voting on this summer.

During a nearly 3-hour-long March 12 council meeting, the renovation proposal’s price and composition, which both the building committee and school board approved, and whether the council would even send that proposal to Winslow voters as a bond question, became a point of confusion and contention between some councilors and board members in attendance.

CONSOLIDATION CONTROVERSY

Two school board members stood up during the public comment section of the meeting to voice their frustration with a councilor for apparently lending credence to a constituent’s proposition to consolidate Winslow High School with Waterville High School, which is an idea they said they’ve studied and dismissed many times over the last decade.

The constituent’s email, which apparently created hostility between some on Facebook upon its being made public, was forwarded to school and town officials by Councilor Ken Fletcher. It stated that now was the time for Waterville and Winslow to merge schools at the high school level. Fletcher apparently included a note with the email, saying that this should be a proposal that the board and council consider. Fletcher’s email cast doubt on the fate of the $8.6 million renovation proposal the board had already approved and sent to the council for their consideration.

“This whole junior high process has been difficult for a lot of us involved and unfortunately has created plenty of rancor in the town,” said Joel Selwood, who chairs the School Board and the building committee. “It bothers me to see the infighting that’s happening online and elsewhere on this project.”

John Ferry, a member of the school board, asked why the Waterville consolidation would be floated as a possibility in the weeks just before the council was to vote on the proposal backed by the board.

“I really don’t understand why you’d want to go back and rehash something that’s already been talked about with the building committee and the school board, and when we’ve already had this discussion 10 years ago,” Ferry said. “We’ve already gone through that process — not only once, but twice — and we may get an email from someone who wants to combine three or four schools next week. Are we going to redo this whole thing again?”

None of the councilors claimed authorship of the email proposing the Waterville and Winslow high school merger during the meeting.

Superintendent Eric Haley and Council Chairman Steve Russel confirmed that Fletcher was the one who forwarded it to other officials. However, when residents and board members brought up the consolidation email, Fletcher appeared to not know what they were referring to. He asked one resident where he had heard about consolidating with Waterville and asked if it was someone on the council who had penned the email.

“Ken acted like he didn’t know what anyone was talking about,” Haley said in a phone call Wednesday afternoon. “But I pulled up that email on my phone and was looking at it while they were talking about it.”

Attempts by the Morning Sentinel to reach Fletcher about the email were unsuccessful.

Russel, however, said he thought the tone of the email was misconstrued.

“I think the point of the email was ‘Why didn’t we look at this option?'” Russel said in an interview Friday. Russel thought Fletcher was making sure every option was vetted. The consolidation with Waterville had been studied, Russel said, but past building committees and School Boards had preferred other options.

FATE OF BOND

When voters rejected a $10.33 million school bond in November, many were quick to blame the 600-seat auditorium for visual and performing arts that was included in the renovation as the reason the bond failed by just over 200 votes. Critics said the new performing space was a luxury, not a need.

Those in favor of the project disagreed, saying more auditorium space was a fundamental necessity for students.

Although the auditorium has been pared down to 430 seats in the latest revision of the proposal, it still seems to be at the crux of the debate as the council plans on voting on two proposals at its meeting in April: a plan that includes an auditorium and was approved by the school board, and a plan that does not include an auditorium and that the school board never took up for a vote.

After the bond was rejected in November, the council gave the board a bond cap of $7.83 million to work with as they pursued a new plan that voters might approve. The plan that the school board approved, however, is about $770,000 over that targeted budget.

Selwood argued during his statement in the public comment time that the renovation and consolidation proposal, which includes funds to build program space for seventh- and eighth-grade students at the high school, to expand the auxiliary gymnasium and food service, and to renovate the elementary school in order to add space for sixth-grade students, will lead to operational cost savings of up to $400,000 annually, which could mitigate the possible financial impact.

Selwood laid out the financial case for the $8.6 million proposal that includes the auditorium at the meeting.

“According to the numbers provided to me by Mike Heavener, the bond payment on the $7.83 million target budget is about $624,000. The annual bond payment on the $8.6 million proposal is about $680,000. That is a difference of $64,000 a year, or one tenth of a mill.

“Our $8.6 million proposal would include annual operational savings now projected that will result in an annual impact one tenth of a mill less than what you planned on when you set the budget,” he said. “Even if the savings came in at $339,000, then it would be equal to the tax impact of the budget that the council set when they said they would approve that amount unanimously.”

Selwood argued that the voters should be the ones who ultimately decide whether to approve the bond and that the council should not bypass the residents by rejecting the proposal unilaterally.

However, while the council discussed how the bond should be phrased for their future vote, Fletcher asked Town Manager Mike Heavener to prepare two different orders for the council to vote on: the $8.6 million plan and a $7.52 million plan that adds additional classroom space rather than a larger auditorium that the building committee rejected.

Councilor Patricia West asked Fletcher if the council would be ignoring the school board’s wishes by voting on a plan that the board did not approve.

“I think the council needs to decide which one of those will go to voters,” Fletcher said, referring to the $8.6 million and the $7.5 million proposals.

Haley raised doubts Wednesday whether the council could send a school bond to voters that the board did not approve. He said he had put in a call to Scott Brown, director of school facilities at the Maine Department of Education, to find out.

Russel said he did not know if the council could bypass the board and that the issue didn’t occur to him during the meeting. Russel said he was personally in favor of sending the board’s recommendation to the voters to let them decide.

FRAUGHT RELATIONSHIP

The debate over the renovation project has stirred up animosity on the board and the council, making the upcoming budget negotiation a particularly tense affair.

“Given that the school board and the council do not have the relationship that it should is unfortunate,” Selwood said during his remarks at the council meeting Monday.

Russel recognized that the board and council have been unable to come together to make longterm plans for Winslow schools. He said they’ve only really been able to get together to discuss fiscal budgets and short term plans — which has become a big source of frustration for Fletcher.

During the council meeting, as well as meetings in the past, Fletcher expressed a deep interest in getting together with the school board to hash out what the financial implications of the AOS dissolution and the future bond project will have on the mill rate and the municipal budget.

“I think that we’re going to have to tell the voters that this is happening and it’s not just the renovation, it’s whatever happens with the AOS and whatever we’re going to do with the budget because that’s going to help us determine the mill rate,” Fletcher said at the meeting Monday, the day before the communities dissolved the school district. “That’s the way I see it.”

In an email to the Morning Sentinel, Fletcher said the school board has not been ready or prepared to address these longterm plans, saying he sent questions to the board in December and still has not received a response.

“I am hoping that the School Board will be prepared Monday night to work together with the Council to develop a Budget and Plan going forward,” he said in the email.

Emily Higginbotham — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @EmilyHigg

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