July 13, 2020

Bucksport council approves compromise school budget

BUCKSPORT — Despite a massive outpouring of public sentiment supporting the school department at a special meeting Thursday night, the Town Council voted to limit the 1996-97 school budget increase to a compromise of 1.8 percent.

School Superintendent Marc Curtis said Friday that the result will mean a loss of three to four positions.

Nearly four hours into the special council meeting at the Miles Lane School, the panel voted 5-2 to set the gross school budget, including adult education, at $7.16 million. The approved increase of $126,131 was more generous than some expected in compensating the school department for half of its lost state aid, but still came in well below the $395,345 local share increase school officials had originally wanted.

Town councilors cited their panel’s obligation to consider the plight of the many residents on fixed incomes.

“It comes down to not what everybody wants or what the dream is, but what everybody can afford,” said Councilor Joel Wardwell.

Curtis said before the vote that school budget increases have averaged only 1.6 percent over the past four years, in keeping with concerns over the Champion International paper mill’s pursuit of $4.5 million in tax abatements, finally resolved earlier this year.

“I know you’ve had a difficult four years, as we have with the abatement issue,” Curtis told the council. “At the same time, I think the school committee has been fiscally responsible in presenting budgets. We need to move forward.”

On Friday, Curtis said he was “very disappointed” with what he felt was an “excessive” cut. Although he could not specify how the new budget would affect the school system, among the more controversial proposals has been to cut one of the system’s four principals, which would result in one principal handling two schools.

A school without a principal is like a town without a manager, cautioned one school secretary at Thursday’s meeting, where many agreed that trying to run the system with three principals had failed before.

For about three hours before the vote, one parent or school employee after another from among about 150 people in the packed cafeteria had lauded the school department, although a few threatened to pull their children if the threat to slash the proposed school budget increase proved true.

Among the first to speak, foster parent Sally Spencer was one of many who said her family had moved to Bucksport because of its schools’ good reputation. Yet improvements to town facilities now seem to be “more important than our children’s education,” said Spencer, who described herself as “extremely upset” at the council’s May 14 preliminary vote to slash $184,207 from the proposed budget increase.

Keith Cunningham, the Bucksport mill’s new public relations manager, said Champion supports the council’s efforts to hold taxes down. He suggested that, like the mill, schools should find better, cheaper ways of producing a quality product, an assertion drawing major opposition.

Resident David Bridgham, a school district business manager in the Ellsworth area, expressed doubt that Champion had held its own budget to 1 percent to 2 percent increases in recent years. He said state residents should pressure the Legislature to fund school systems adequately rather than slash state aid.

In an abrupt departure from the laudatory tone of public comment, Mayor Lisa Whitney described the school system as a “mediocrity” that, for the $7 million dollars it receives, should deliver a more stellar performance.

As proposed by Councilor Jeffrey Robinson Sr., the Town Council ultimately voted 5-2 to reduce the school department’s proposed increase by $160,803 instead of the $184,207 it had earlier recommended, to compensate for half the loss in state subsidy. Councilors Whitney and Wardwell opposed the motion, hoping to compensate the schools more thoroughly for reductions in state aid.

The municipal budget was set at $3.06 million. Town officials said Friday that the overall municipal and school budget increase of 2.1 percent would result in a 5.6 percent increase, or $56 more per $1,000, in property taxes.

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