2018-07-19 / Front Page

Charter changes address school related issues

By Abigail Worthing Staff Writer

SACO – A joint meeting between the city council and school board allowed for discussion over coming changes to the charter.

Following a tumultuous budget season, during which the school board requested and received a $2.2 million increase to the its budget, the two boards sat together at a long conference table to speak face to face about issues that pertain to both entities.

The Monday, July 16 meeting provided the two governing boards to discuss the most recent budget season, with each side offering opinions on how the process could have been improved. Ward 4 Councilor Lynn Copeland said she believes in the importance of smart spending between the school board and city.

“I understand that the interlocal agreement was too much, but have we thought about how to consolidate spending and purchasing between the school board and city?” Copeland asked.

The interlocal agreement that was proposed in spring would have allowed Saco to merge with other school districts, similar to a regional school unit, but was voted down by the school board. Superintendent Dominic DePatsy said the school board is working with city officials on purchasing, specifically a plan to merge the two printing plans into one as a cost saving strategy. In a packet memo from City Administrator Kevin Sutherland, while the proposed plan requires no additional capital, it moves the decision to change it up a year and needs to be discussed by the council. Director of Information Technology Ryan Pinheiro presented the new printing plan. The new plan for the city would reduce municipal printing costs from $51,165 to $35,361, while annual costs for the school department would reduce from $107,995 to a projected $73,274.

The two boards also discussed proposed changes to the charter that pertained to both governing bodies. One such proposed amendment mandated that the school board and city council hold joint meetings during the second weeks of both September and December of each year. After discussion, it was decided that the amendment would be redrafted to exclude the specific week, instead specifying only the months to prevent breaking charter in instances of inclement weather.

Another of these proposed changes to the charter is an amendment that would allow the mayor to preside over both the city council and school board. The proposal was met with discourse between both sides, with members of the school board speaking out against such an overlap. School board member Beth Johnston said she believes appointing the mayor as acting chairman would disrupt the flow of communication between the superintendent and the board, as the chairman usually helps facilitate discussion and the flow of information between the two.

The city of Biddeford’s mayor serves as chairman of its school board.

Current School Board Chairman Michael Ohayon said that he believes the amount of work required of the chairman cannot be so easily transferred to the mayor.

“It feels like a power grab at this point,” Ohayon said. “There has to be a separation.”

Officials discussed the language of the amendment, which states that the mayor would “preside over” the meeting and only cast a vote in the event of a tie. The question of language comes in the interpretation of “preside over” and whether that means acting as chairman or only a facilitator over the meeting, similar to the mayor’s current role within the city council. A suggestion was also made that the city elect a council chairman the same way it elects a mayor to provide a further level of neutrality within the board.

For Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant, presiding over both bodies provides an important bridge between school committee and municipal government, especially during budget season.

“We have a lot of communication between the superintendent and the council, but I understand that that is unique from most municipalities. If there isn’t a bridge, you’re left effectively with two silos without communicating with the other. Big picture, the budgets need to come together,” Casavant said in a separate interview.

Ward 3 Councilor William Doyle said he believed the two groups were making “too much noise” about the matter.

“We’re reading too much into it. We don’t need to have another elected position,” Doyle said. “We can’t say that just because this has been tried and failed before that we shouldn’t try it again.”

While neighboring municipality Biddeford has an elected charter commission to execute changes, Saco uses its council to propose and amend the charter. According to Saco Mayor Marston Lovell, Saco has not had a formal elected charter commission since 1978. Residents, however, just like in Biddeford, will have an opportunity to vote on charter changes.

“All changes will be broadcast to the public so that everyone is aware,” Lovell said. “This will be a big year for general elections, so we should have a good turn out for a vote on these (amendments).”

Sutherland, also in a seperate interview, said not electing a charter commission is within the city’s purview as the proposed changes aren’t overhauling the existing charter.

The amendments will be presented for a first reading, public hearing and second reading during future council meetings prior to approval. Charter amendments must be approved by September to be included as referendum questions during the general election in November.

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

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