The Town Council convenes for a special meeting at the Winslow High School auditorium to discuss next year’s proposed school budget. After more than an hour of heated public comment, the budget was defeated in a 3-3 council vote. Dylan Tusinski/Morning Sentinel

WINSLOW — Administrators are returning to the drawing board after the Town Council voted against next year’s proposed school budget.

Winslow schools Superintendent Peter Thiboutot Morning Sentinel file

The proposed budget totaled just over $20 million, representing a 7% increase from this year, largely prompted by inflation and the rising cost of everything from gas to labor, according to Superintendent Peter Thiboutot.

But opposition to the budget mounted amid concerns of higher taxes, budgetary overruns and the hiring of four new positions: a dean of students at the elementary school, a contracted student evaluator and two student support positions at the elementary and high school. Many people in opposition claim the positions are unnecessary and accommodate needs that could be addressed by parents.

School administrators have said the new roles are necessary to address changes in student behavior since the pandemic and an increasing number of students in special education programs. Town officials have said that residents’ tax bills will not increase this year as they dip into a pool of unassigned funds to offset budgetary increases.

The budget was defeated in a 3-3 vote during a special council meeting Monday night. Councilors Dale Macklin, Ray Caron and Jeff West voted in support of the budget while Mike Joseph, Adam Lint and Fran Hudson opposed it. Winslow’s seventh councilor, Lee Trahan, was not present.

The meeting drew about 75 attendees and was held at Winslow High School’s auditorium to accommodate the crowd. The public comment segment lasted more than an hour.

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“WHAT HAPPENS NEXT YEAR?”

Much of the opposition to the proposed budget centers around the burden on taxpayers and questions about whether the new positions are necessary.

The budget represented an increase of roughly $2 million, with about $440,000 to be spent on the added positions. Officials have previously said about 77% of the budget is spent on staff salaries and benefits.

Joseph raised concerns about the increasing tax burden on Winslow’s senior citizens and residents on fixed incomes, noting that he was elected in large part by residents frustrated with a sharp increase in property taxes last year. He said their needs must be considered in the budgetary process.

Winslow Town Manager Ella Bowman Contributed photo

Town Manager Ella Bowman reiterated that the proposed budget would not raise taxes, but noted that it was only because Winslow is utilizing just under $1 million from the town’s unassigned funds, which comes from unspent tax revenue.

Several residents said during the meeting that they were worried about growing municipal budgets and their impact on tax bills. Mark Lint said he believes the use of unassigned funds is unsustainable in the long term.

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“You want 7%, that sounds like peanuts, but my income doesn’t go up 7% every year,” he said.

Resident Steve Soucy noted that Winslow is set to begin a number of extensive infrastructure projects and worried that residents could see future tax increases similar to last year’s. “The town has several major projects, mandatory projects, for the sewers and roads,” he said. “Those will cost millions of dollars on top of this increase here. I mean, what happens next year?”

Some who spoke during the meeting, such as resident Louis Bourgeois, said they believe student behavior is not the school district’s responsibility, and that the increase in incidents is because of changes in parenting techniques.

“The school’s there to teach, not to teach students how to behave,” Bourgeois said.

One resident who spoke in opposition to the budget noted that state data shows reported incidents of bullying at Winslow schools have fallen dramatically from prepandemic levels while reported behavioral incidents have more than doubled.

Thiboutot said the numbers are a sign that the district’s efforts are working. He said the increase in behavioral incidents is partly a result of schools adding necessary staff to address student behavior and state laws requiring they report such incidents.

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“SOMETHING WE NEED, NOT SOMETHING WE WANT”

Teachers and school administrators are adamant that the budget is based on educational data and student needs, and that budgetary increases are necessary to continue providing students a good education.

The proposed budget is already at its “bare bones,” officials say, with nearly $230,000 in cuts made before it was proposed to the council.

Thiboutot said that there has been misinformation about the budget circulating on social media, with many residents misunderstanding both the new roles and the events that prompted their hiring.

The district now contracts out the two student support roles it intended to hire. Thiboutot said the district would be saving money by making the positions official. Even if it got rid of the positions entirely, he said, the district is still bound by law to provide their services to students.

The student support positions that drew much of the criticism are necessary, as Maine schools face increasing demand for additional support in the classroom in the years since the pandemic, several educators said during the meeting. The roles provide specialized and individual attention to students with poor behavior.

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As incidents of emotional and behavioral “disregulation” continue to climb, Winslow High math teacher Kit Potelle said, the positions are needed to keep teachers teaching rather than constantly dealing with poor behavior.

“Students have changed dramatically over the last five or six years,” she said. “This is something we need, not something we want.”

BUDGET VOTE MAY BE DELAYED

The meeting began as Joseph moved to reconsider his vote from an April 22 council meeting at which he voted in favor of the proposed budget.

The council on April 22 had approved the budget in a 4-2 vote, with Hudson and Lint against it.

Joseph said he decided to reconsider the vote after hearing concerns from constituents about the increase. He abandoned the motion after town attorney William A. Lee III said the council would have to start the entire process over again if the vote was reconsidered.

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After about an hour of public comment, town administrators began discussing the budget among themselves.

Though some questioned the town’s plan to use unassigned funds to curb tax bills, Bowman said the practice is standard among many municipalities and that she employed the same tactic while Oakland’s town manager.

Macklin noted that municipal and school budget increases are not uncommon, and that Winslow’s proposed 7% increase was still lower than many other nearby districts.

A number of districts around central Maine have been facing sharp budget increases this year as COVID-era federal funds expire. Some have eliminated teaching positions to cut costs, while others have opted to raise tax bills. Thiboutot previously said Winslow schools have remained largely unaffected by those problems.

Ultimately, councilors voted down the budget 3-3. Shouts of “Shame!” and “Let the people vote!” rang out from educators in the crowd as Hudson cast the deciding “no” vote.

The council must now hold two special sessions to tweak the budget, present it to the public, and come to a consensus among themselves to approve it, meaning it may not be ready for the planned townwide vote at the June 11 primary election.

If the council cannot complete those steps before June 1, the budget will require its own special election. The special meetings have not yet been scheduled.

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