2018-04-26 / Front Page

Saco officials go head to head

By Abigail Worthing
Staff Writer

SACO – Over the last few weeks, tensions have run high over discussions of the 2018-2019 school budget. During an April 9 budget session, Superintendent Dominic DePatsy’s presentation was met with so many questions from the city council that a joint meeting between school board and council was proposed. The meeting was held Monday, April 23 where the council and school board informally sat together and discussed the budget.

The school board has proposed a $39.4 million education budget, a 10.69 percent increase from last year. The school board budget alone would result in a $1.10 increase to the mil rate, in addition to the 37 cent increase from the proposed $28.7 million municipal budget.

Councilors posed questions about the budget to school board members while seated face to face at table, council on one side, school board on the other.

Ward 4 Councilor Lynn Copeland brought up a topic she mentioned at the April 9 meeting, asking for more information about the school board’s decision not to enter into the proposed Southern Maine Regional Service Center, a coalition of school districts similar to a regional school unit. Copeland said she was concerned about turning away “free money” as joining the service center would result in a stipend of $49,000. The proposed regional service center would serve to unify schools within a geographical area and work together to provide policies and standards.

Beth Johnston, vice-chairman of the school board, spoke about concerns that led to the decision. Johnston said parts of the agreement were concerning in terms of legality, citing a portion about the exit procedure. According to the agreement, a two-thirds vote of the service center board would be required to leave the service center, a caveat that gave certain members pause.

“I have a long history with the RSU,” Johnston said, referencing the 2013 decision to exit RSU 23, which included Saco, Dayton and Old Orchard Beach. “Those of us who decided against it didn’t take it lightly.”

Steve Shiman, Ward 4 school board member, said there were some on the school board, himself included, that strongly disagreed with the decision not to join the service center.

“We’re not happy about it but it is what it is,” Shiman said.

Ward 7 Councilor Nathan Johnston asked what benefits would be in membership. Ward 1 school board member Garrett Abrahamson said it would afford the district a chance to collaborate with other schools “outside our Saco walls.” Abrahamson also said being part of a larger organization would allow the school district to have a stronger voice in Augusta.

Ward 1 Councilor Marshall Archer spoke about his experience going over the school board’s additional requests to their base budget, which include expenses such as $35,000 for a certified librarian at C.K. Burns School, $70,000 for a kindergarten through second grade technology integrator, and $80,000 for five new buses and three vans to update an aging fleet.

Archer said he could see a few expenses that could be held off until next year. He asked that the school board go back to its budget and prioritize requests, adding that while he was fully behind requests having to do with public safety, some appeared as though they could be pushed until next year, specifically, a $200,000 request to update the Saco Middle School gymnasium floor and bleachers and a $36,500 request to provide iPads to second-grade students at Fairfield School. The latter request is part of the strategic plan for the school board to provide iPads to students in the school district at a 1:1 ratio. Archer will take a tour of the school district on April 26 and 27 in an effort to be able to make an informed decision on the necessity of these requests.

One request that provoked skepticism from councilors was that of a proposed $150,000 “contingency fund.”

“We are your contingency fund,” Copeland said. “It needs to go. Get some things that aren’t necessary, off.”

Ward 5 Councilor Alan Minthorn referenced interactions with Saco residents, adding that for every call he received saying taxpayers would happily pay a higher mil rate to help the school district, there have been 10 calls pleading to cut back on the increase. Minthorn also referenced the 23 percent of Saco senior residents who live on a fixed income and could not afford the proposed increase.

An agreement was reached that the school board would attempt to prioritize the list of requests to come to what Archer referred to as a “fair and balanced number” at the school board’s Wednesday, April 25 meeting.

The session Monday concluded with a shaking of hands between the two groups and Archer congratulating them on a successful meeting.

The public hearing for the budget will take place on May 7, and final council vote will take place May 17.

Contact Staff Writer Abigail Worthing at news@inthecourier.com.

FMI

The Saco City Council has directed the school board to reduce its proposed budget at its next meeting, scheduled for Wednesday, April 25, after Courier deadline. The council is expected to take a final vote on the budget May 17.

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