FAIRFIELD — Residents in the local school district authorized officials to spend more money than the district will receive in revenue in the 2019-2020 school year, leaving questions about whether some changes they expressed wanting to see will be implemented.

School Administrative District 49 Superintendent Reza Namin, right center, answers budget questions Tuesday during an SAD 49 school budget meeting at Lawrence Junior High School in Fairfield. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

In a nearly three-hour meeting, voters in School Administrative District 49 approved an overall budget of $27.42 million, which represents a 3.5% increase over the current $26.49 million budget. The district includes Albion, Benton, Clinton and Fairfield.

The budget approved represents an increase of $271,093 from what the school board originally recommended. At the same time, residents failed to appropriate additional money to be raised by taxation, and officials said they were unsure how the district would proceed after the move.

The budget presented by the school board included a 6% increase in local taxes. To fund the appropriations approved by voters Tuesday would require a 9.5% tax increase.

The discrepancy between the amount of spending approved by voters and the budgeted revenue came down to two major changes in the proposed budget brought forward Tuesday night by former SAD 49 school board Chairman Steve Grenier.

About 100 registered voters and about 20 nonresidents attended the meeting at Lawrence Junior High School.

The first change to the budget introduced by Grenier put an additional $366,108 into the regular instruction category, which had been budgeted at $10.8 million. Grenier made a motion to raise that to $11.16 million.

He said his intention was to counteract a $95,000 reduction in spending on regular instruction — which includes things such as teacher’s salaries, supplies, books and field trips — and provide for a 2.47% overall increase from last year. The additional money also would cover the cost of hiring an additional education technician, he said.

Grenier made a second motion to reduce the budget for system administration by $95,014. He said the reduction would eliminate salary increases for the director of finance and assistant superintendent and a $30,000 increase in the business office.

The budget presented by the school board calls for a $19,000 raise for the finance director and an increase from $14,300 to $30,974 for the assistant superintendent in a line item labeled “curriculum coordination.”

Superintendent Reza Namin said the raise for the finance director is related to a re-write of her job description under an administrative restructuring plan and brings the salary more into line with that of other finance heads in the region.

He also said the salary for the assistant superintendent appears to be a large increase, but her salary is divided among several lines and because some of those lines moved around, the increase appears to be larger than it is.

Some residents raised questions about the increases during the contentious meeting along with questions on the effect that administrative restructuring would have. The restructuring plan, approved by the board in January, recently led to the buy-out of three former administrators at a cost of $417,665.

“How is it being fiscally responsible to buy out contracts? How much would it cost to keep these people on for one more year?” Albion resident Mark Gilbert asked.

Only school board member Kara Kugelmeyer spoke up in response to Gilbert’s question.

“Yes, in my opinion it was not a very good move,” she said.

The cost of the buy-outs, $61,000 of which will be covered by insurance, comes from the 2018-2019 school year budget. Namin said Tuesday the restructuring plan, which includes changes to or the elimination of 13 jobs, is not budgeted for 2019-2020, although the changes to the business office are budgeted for.

Benjamin Kent, a mathematics teacher at Lawrence High School, speaks Tuesday about his concerns about the school budget during a School Administrative District 49 budget meeting at Lawrence Junior High School in Fairfield. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

The budget also includes a salary for a high school principal, a job that was scheduled to be eliminated in favor of a grades 7-12 principal, but that change has been put on hold. High School Principal Mark Campbell, one of the three administrators whose contracts were bought out, resigned at the time the settlements were negotiated in April.

A motion asking residents if they wanted to raise the additional $271,094 approved for spending in taxes failed, and residents ultimately voted 54-32 to keep the amount of money to be raised locally through taxes at the amount set by the board.

Tuesday’s meeting was contentious at times, including at one point when Lawrence High School mathematics teacher Benjamin Kent confronted Namin about employees he said were being denied their rights to use sick leave or maternity leave. Namin accused Kent of lying.

Namin also confronted past board leaders who were in the audience to ask them about cuts to staff in past years.

School Administrative District 49 Superintendent Reza Namin, with pen at right, listens to the proceedings Tuesday during an SAD 49 budget meeting at Lawrence Junior High School in Fairfield. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

“Why were 64 positions cut (since 2008) and no one was screaming about it?” he asked.

Former board Chairman Stewart Kinley said past reductions were largely the result of declining enrollment numbers.

Both current board Chairman Shawn Knox and Namin said after the meeting they were not sure how the district would proceed in light of the fact voters had approved spending more money than would be collected in revenue.

Kelli Deveaux, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Education, said in an email Wednesday that state statute does allow districts to move money from one area to another within the operating budget, but it can’t be more than 5% during the whole budget cycle.

There is also an annual percentage from the previous year’s budget that can be carried over that isn’t allocated to specific funds, but it would be up to the district to determine if any additional carryover could be applied.

“Ultimately, it will be up to the school committee and administration to figure out what they really have for funds and how to spend only that,” Deveaux said.

During the meeting, Kugelmeyer several times warned the audience that it could be complicated if they approve changes in spending without specifying exactly how and where the money would come from.

“I appreciate what Mr. Grenier is trying to do, but I want to make clear to the audience that one of the reasons we had such a big payout had to do with contractual obligations,” she said. “We need to be careful in making these changes. We don’t want to spiral the district into further chaos and litigation.”

The budget now will go to voters in a districtwide referendum June 11 for final approval. Polling hours are 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Albion Town Office, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Benton Town Office, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Clinton Town Office and 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Fairfield Community Center.

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