LEWISTON — School districts in Jay, Fryeburg, Belfast and Island Falls have been forced to cancel budget votes on Tuesday and reschedule them for mid-August after errors were discovered in the budget referendum documents that, if voted on, would have left districts millions of dollars short for the coming school year.

The errors were discovered July 1 and all four school districts were informed the following day. However, the errors could not be corrected ahead of the scheduled July 14 referendum because it was too late to adjust the warrants and because absentee ballots had already gone out, according to a memo drafted to each district superintendent from attorneys Aga Dixon and Bill Stockmeyer of Drummond Woodsum, the Portland law firm that prepared the warrants.

On Tuesday evening, School Administrative District 72 and Regional School Unit 73 each held special board meetings to rescind the 2020-21 budget warrants and set new election dates.

On Wednesday, Stockmeyer told the Sun Journal that warrants were prepared in a relatively compressed time frame due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ordinarily, school districts would have held a meeting with residents voting on the budget, followed by a referendum to ratify the budget. Instead, an order by Gov. Janet Mills authorized schools to conduct remote public hearings on budgets and then hold a referendum for approval.

The firm became aware of the errors when one of the districts noticed a number on the warrant seemed low and contacted the firm. The firm confirmed the errors were confined to four districts and “in each case,” Stockmeyer said, “the error was a significant one” that without correction “would significantly impact the education for the children in those school districts.”

In SAD 72, which includes Fryeburg, Brownfield, Denmark, Sweden, Lovell, Stow and Stoneham, Question 1 on the incorrect warrant was to authorize $9.9 million in local taxes to be raised to help fund the $21.4 million total budget. The actual local taxes required to fund the budget is $12.99 million, or a $3.05 million difference, leaving the district short.

In RSU 73, which includes Jay, Livermore and Livermore Falls, the local taxes to be raised to fund a $20.2 million total budget should have been $10.2 million. Question 1 on the warrant sought authorization of $7.4 million, or $2.9 million less than needed.

In RSU 50, which are the Southern Aroostook Community Schools, the local taxes to be raised should have been $2.5 million for a $5.6 million total budget, but the warrant called for $1.5 million in local taxes, or $948,025 less than needed.

The greatest disparity was in RSU 71 in Waldo County, which includes Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Searsmont and Swanville, where $15.5 million in local taxes must be raised to support the $28.3 million school budget. Question 1 on the warrant, however, only called for $10 million, or $5.4 million less than needed.

In each case, the local tax figure used in the warrant included only the tax amount noted in Article 12, in each respective district, not the sum of that tax plus additional taxes.

Missing in SAD 72 were $75,000 in local taxes to fund the school nutrition program and $3 million in additional local funds; in RSU 73, missing were $2.9 million in additional local funds; in RSU 50, missing were $948,025 in additional local funds; and, in RSU 71, missing were $1.4 million in debt service payments and $4 million in additional local funds.

Stockmeyer said the errors were transcriptional errors, “taking the wrong number from the context of the full budget meeting and using that number instead of the sum of other numbers.”

And, he said, “fixing our mistake was the only right way to proceed. It was not possible to correct the error in time, before the election,” so Stockmeyer and Dixon recommended to each school district that it cancel its vote, alert municipal clerks of that decision, ask them to impound the warrants and all ballots, including absentee ballots that had already been returned, and to return all documents to school superintendents “to secure and retain them as a public record.”

The firm further advised the districts that each must schedule board meetings as soon as possible to rescind warrants and notices of election and reschedule budget hearings and budget referendums. And, once done, post notice of these actions on websites as soon as possible after the school board meetings to give public notice.

According to Stockmeyer, these measures will ensure that old, incorrect ballots will not be in circulation for the Aug. 18 vote, and the new ballots will be a different color than the old ones to make them easy to identify.

The firm has offered to refund any fees already paid for preparation of the warrant articles and to waive any fees for preparation of the new documents to correct the errors, and will also pay any municipal costs for cancellation and rescheduling of the budget votes in each district.

“This was a law firm error,” Stockmeyer said. “It was not an error by any superintendent, any school business manager, or any school board. In the compressed time frame in which everyone was acting, I think it would not be reasonable to expect school administrators to catch this error in such a short time.”

Stockmeyer, who heads the public finance group at Drummond Woodsum, said, “I take responsibility for the error. … and believe we should pay the costs for all four school districts.”

He said he and the firm “very much regret” the errors, knowing there was “inconvenience for the school boards, for the clerks and for the towns. We totally get that and we wish that wasn’t so, but we think that the most critical thing is to get it right and so we’re going to get it right.”

Stockmeyer praised the responsiveness of the school districts and their shared willingness to reschedule votes. The work, he said, “involves enlisting everyone necessary to make this work so education is properly funded in the state of Maine.”

On Wednesday, SAD 72 Superintendent Jay Robinson said that if the error that would have left the district’s budget $3 million short had not been caught in time it would have been a nightmare to cut from the already pared down budget.

While the SAD 72 budget is increasing by 3.28%, $680,000 was taken from the fund balance so that the amount needed to be raised by taxes would be $300,000 less than last year, Robinson said.

According to memos sent to each school district by Drummond Woodsum and obtained by the Sun Journal on Wednesday, Dixon and Stockmeyer apologized to Superintendents Mary Alice McLean in RSU 71, Jon Porter in RSU 50, Scott Albert in RSU 73 and Robinson in SAD 72 “and everyone who will be inconvenienced” by the error.

Each district has set the new election date for Aug. 18, with public budget hearings to be set at least seven days prior to the referendum vote. Because the newly scheduled referendum vote will not be held on a statewide voting date, towns will have the option to schedule shorter polling hours, but must be open for at least four consecutive hours for voting.

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