New Calais school system Superintendent Keith Laser didn't hide his dismay and concern at a school committee workshop held on September 11. After having reviewed the budget with staff, he said, "It's a lot worse than anyone thought." He revised the budget deficit from $330,000 to the amount of $498,389, attributing the difference to line items discovered that showed a drop in Medicaid reimbursements at the day treatment center of $175,000, a decrease in tuition student income of $85,000 and another type of reimbursement that had dropped $56,400.
The new deficit amount will be considered by Calais residents when they head for a third time to the polls to vote on the school system budget at the Tuesday, September 24, budget validation referendum. The voting will take place at the city building from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. There will also be an opportunity for voters to fill out an exit poll that councillors hope will help them understand the reasons for the two prior budget rejections.
The first vote on July 9 rejected a school budget of $8,324,348 by a vote of 238 to 55. The second vote held on August 27 turned down a budget of $8,379,834 by a vote of 171 to 118. Since then the school committee and the city council have held meetings to discuss cuts on the school side and revenue adjustments on the city side.
The September 24 budget validation referendum will be for the amount of $8,429,834. The increase is a result of a special council meeting held on September 10 that resulted in the city reassigning $50,000 in capital improvement plan (CIP) funds to the school budget revenue side. Because the funds are already in the existing city budget, the local share in taxation does not increase to provide those funds.
The school system currently has 261 students in Kindergarten through sixth grade, 65 in seventh and eighth grades and 217 in grades 9 through 12.
School committee begins cuts
The Calais School Committee, first with the input of interim Superintendent Ray Freve, and now with Laser, has whittled its expenses down by about $120,000 with action at an August 29 meeting. The list included a number of proposed cuts that would have totaled $432,438 if implemented. Action was taken to cut: an unfilled teacher position, $40,572; the truck driving program, $20,024, with committee members John Hill and Robert Greenlaw casting dissenting votes; an unfilled head custodian position, $6,723; NEAS dues, $2,915; class advisors and seventh and eighth grade basketball, approximately $10,800.
At the August 29 school committee meeting, committee members noted that in the past volunteers have taken on the role of class advisors and could do so again. In addition, they explained that the seventh and eighth grade basketball program had been at one time under the auspices of the city's recreation department as are all the other sports programs for those two classes, noted Chairman James MacDonald. They hoped that it could be absorbed again and were discussing options with the city. If the recreation department does not absorb the basketball program, the committee hoped that volunteers would step forward given the area's high degree of enthusiasm for the sport.
In addition the committee was advised of the importance of sending out lay‑off notices to almost all the staff in the event that lay‑offs will have to occur because of the 90‑day notification requirement. "It's a legality," explained committee member Kathleen Caso. Committee member John Hill voted against the motion, but noted that the passing motion was a precaution. "You'll still need to come back to us to actually lay‑off," he told the superintendent.
The school committee met again on September 11 to review the increase in revenue voted on by the council at the previous night's special meeting. With the deficit now looming at almost half a million dollars, committee members scrutinized a list prepared by Laser that was not available to the public because of some confidentiality issues. Committee members agreed that the following cuts would most likely be acted upon at their next meeting: $45,000 in cuts to stipends; two furlough days, $90,000; a Title 1 elementary position and a high school ed tech, with no dollar amounts provided; a partial cut to the art program at a savings of $40,000, but with Laser asked to bring amounts for partial and full cuts for the art program; a partial cut to the music program, with no dollar amount provided; selling the tractor trailer used by the now defunded truck driving program, with estimated revenue of $11,000; and a few other discussion points without dollar amounts discussed in public. The grand total of cuts was $385,000, with $113,400 remaining for further discussion at the committee's Thursday, September 19, meeting to be held at 6 p.m. at the school library. "We're cutting into bone," said Laser.
The cuts included the estimated savings of $50,000 in heating costs if the heating systems were changed to run on propane. While the committee will be seeking another bid, Dead River gave a cost of $95,000, with $25,000 for the high school and $70,000 for the elementary. The first $50,000 would be paid for with maintenance funds allocated for the purpose by the city. The remaining amount might be financed, but Caso noted that in a recent conversation with school trustees a mention of available funds was made. In addition, Councillor Billy Howard pointed out that the number two heating oil currently at the school can be sold back for a credit towards propane costs.
City reassigns funds to school
At the September 3 Calais City Council special meeting, the council approved removing a funding restriction from an amount of $40,000 that now allows the school to spend the money as it sees fit rather than specifically for books and in a manner that would have had the school going to the city for each purchase.
Councillor Anne Nixon had motioned to release both the $40,000 and an additional allocation of $50,000 restricted to maintenance, but the motion was not seconded. Councillor Howard built upon Nixon's idea and made the passing motion to release the first amount. The second amount, he noted, would better serve the school by staying with the city to act as funding to convert the school heating system to propane.
Nixon raised the question of amounts in the city's CIP fund that might be diverted in all or part to the school, including $5,000 from the cemetery fund, $79,400 from the fire department, $27,800 from the police department and $13,000 from the city building for a total of about $125,000. "It's not all [to meet the school budget], but it's a chunk," she noted. However, Nixon referred to amounts taken from a spreadsheet that had not been updated to reflect current balances. Her motion did not receive a second.
Again, Howard built upon his colleague's motion and suggested a start of $5,000 from the cemetery and $20,000 from the fire department. At that point City Manager Diane Barnes suggested that if the council wanted to go the route of giving CIP funds to the school she needed to go back to department heads to find out which funds could be moved and which couldn't because of match requirements or other legalities.
Five days later at the September 10 meeting Barnes asked each of the department heads to discuss the CIP allocations. In the total CIP budget of $734,874, she said that there was about $40,000 from two line items that department heads felt could be reassigned and used as revenue for the school. Councillors questioned the department heads and learned about the need for setting aside CIP funds on an annual basis for such long‑term goals as: a new cemetery dump truck; fire department ladder truck, self‑contained breathing apparatus and other gear that has a time‑restricted shelf‑life; the recreation department's need to begin tackling city pool repairs; and more.
After hearing the long list, Nixon returned to the theme started at the previous meeting and suggested CIP items to add to the $40,000 already identified by Barnes. However, Councillor Chris Bernardini made the motion to set the school budget at $8,379,834, the amount turned down at the second referendum vote. The action caused murmurs of disapproval in the audience. The vote did not carry. Nixon put forth a motion in CIP cuts that would have reassigned about $66,120, but during council discussion Councillor Art Mingo suggested additional line items that would total $131,000. "I think that $330,000 and $120,000 in cuts are too much in one year for that school," he said. Nixon's motion had its second rescinded and Mingo then made his motion. It did not pass the vote.
Council President Marianne Moore then suggested that in addition to the $20,000 reassigned from the fire department's four‑bay garage line item and the $20,000 reassigned from the administration's building addition line item, the council reassign $10,000 from the capital equipment reserve fund, which had a balance of $27,621. The total of $50,000 was added to the total school budget, resulting in the new budget amount to go before voters of $8,429,834. Bernardini made the motion, and the vote carried, with Howard, Mingo and Nixon casting dissenting votes. "It's not enough," said Howard.