2012-08-23 / News

School officials want to cut $500,000 to $1 million

By Marc Filippino
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – With grades one to nine beginning classes on Sept. 4, it appears the 2012-2013 school year will begin without a new budget after exactly 1,000 residents turned out to the polls to vote down the school budget for the second time.

The Aug. 16 referendum proposed a $32.6 million budget that was scaled back by more than $400,000 by new Superintendent of Schools Jeremy Ray and the Biddeford School Committee. However, the budget was still defeated by a little more than 100 votes. In total, 553 residents voted against the budget, while 446 voted in favor.

The referendum also had a second question on the ballot: whether voters felt the budget was too high or too low. In total, 640 voters said the budget is still too high, while 263 voters feel the budget is too low.

The original school budget, which totaled $32.9 million, was first voted down during a June 21 referendum.

“I’m disappointed but not surprised,” Ray said. “The economy is a challenge right now and people are worried about tax increases. This presents a challenge, but not one that we won’t overcome.”

Because a 2013 budget has not been approved, Ray said the schools will adopt last year’s budget of $30.9 million. The budget will go back to Ray and school committee members, who will look for more cuts before sending the budget back out to referendum.

In a recent letter to the editor published in the Courier, Ray said the cost to hold the next referendum will be a local expense and will not be covered by the department of education. City Clerk Carmen Morris said the cost of an election hasn’t been totaled, but paid overtime for clerk staff, advertising and printing costs are the most notable expenses.

The budget will continue to go to referendum until a budget is approved, said Ray. The most recent budget eliminated several technology initiatives and unfilled staff positions. Ray said the last budget presented was “as far as the committee could go” without making staff cuts, and said he is unsure what other efficiencies the district could suggest at this time.

Ray said because staff positions are in danger, he wants to make sure the committee does not have go through the whole revision process again.

“We need to study the organization and make sure we’re not going after a position here and a position here,” Ray said. “We need a thematic and systematic approach so there is a process so when we lose something we can think about how we can build greater consistencies in our schools kindergarten to 12th grade.”

School Committee Vice Chairman Tammy Fleurent said any cuts to staff would mean the quality of education would diminish in classrooms. Fleurent said a kindergarten classroom, which assigns up to 15 children to a teacher, would now have classes of 20 or more.

“I don’t think any more cuts would be adequate funding for a school district with this many needs,” Fleurent said.

Meanwhile, committee member Anthony Michaud believes the school committee should decrease the budget further. Michaud, who was not in favor of the 5.88 percent budget increase during the latest budget process, said he wants toseenomorethana3percentincrease, which would bring the budget between $31 million and $32 million.

“I think the citizens of Biddeford lack trust in the school committee and how we’ve done our finances in the past administrations,” Michaud said.

Michaud said instead of looking at staff cuts, the school committee should be looking at cutting more stipends and programs. Particularly, Michaud said he would like to see a cut in stipends that are paid to teachers for work done during the school day. Michaud feels only work done before and after school hours should be considered eligible for stipends.

“We have to do more with less,” Michaud said. “Businesses and corporations are doing more with less and the schools should do the same.”

In one of his first acts as superintendent, Ray held a public forum in order to hear the concerns residents had over the budget. Ray said he would continue to seek public input in order to reach a number the community is comfortable with.

Because of the communication with the public, Committee Member Bil Moriarty said he was surprised by the results, but also feels the district is progressing to a budget number the public can agree with.

During the Aug. 16 referendum there was an increase of 300 voters from those who voted at the polls in the June 21 referendum. In the first referendum more than a 2-to-1 margin out voted the budget

Moriarty feels a good starting point would be $500,000 in cuts, but still wants public input, something he feels the committee didn’t receive enough of during the last process.

“I think we’re close,” Moriarty said. “But people are saying they want leadership, but we held several workshops on this budget and only seven people showed up, and half of them were teachers. People need to let us know what they want from this budget.”

School Committee Chairman Alan Casavant, who is also the mayor, agreed with Moriarty, and said if no one from the public is offering suggestions, there may be cuts to student services.

“The problem is trying to find the niche voters are going to be comfortable with,” Casavant said. “We have reached a point where we would be affecting students. Now the staff might be affected so we have ask, ‘How are we going to go about doing that.’”

Casavant said the school committee, finance committee and City Manager John Bubier will meet before the next budget proposal is set to see if the schools can share certain services with the city government to cut costs.

“We want to break through that wall for better efficiency,” Casavant said.

Ray and Casavant said an emergency school committee meeting would be held soon to consider budget options.

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