May 07, 2021

Divisive struggle looms in Calais over call for deeper school cuts

CALAIS – The City Council said it wanted to hold the line on this year’s city and school budgets, so the school committee sharpened its knife and pared away at line items in its budget.

But city officials wanted more once they learned the state had dumped additional money into the school coffers under the new funding formula.

So city officials have suggested the school committee cut an additional $103,000 from its budget.

But the school committee is balking.

The two sides plan to duke it out Monday night.

A workshop is planned for 6 p.m. at the city building.

This year, the proposed school department’s total budget increased 8.5 percent over last year. The budget broke the $8 million mark, an increase of $666,898 over last year.

Although the total budget went up, the local share – that portion paid by the taxpayers – went down.

If approved as presented, the local share would decrease 21.8 percent from last year, or $374,751.

In addition to an increase in state subsidy, the school department also has a better handle on its expenses. “We changed drastically the way we do business here the last year and a half,” Superintendent Jim Underwood said Friday. “What we have done is … reduce taxes by $374,000. That is $3,000 more than the total amount of money the state has given us. So we were able to give back 100 percent of the additional money the state gave to the taxpayers, plus $3,000.”

The school committee also paid back $187,000 it had borrowed from the city in the past. “So we cleared up the $187,000 deficit,” the superintendent said.

When the two sides meet, school officials plan to be armed with facts and figures as well as support from parents.

On Wednesday, the PTA sent a letter to parents detailing the problem and urging them to attend the workshop.

“We are happy to report that due to the new school funding formula from the state of Maine, an increase in the number of tuition students, an increase in revenue from grants and other sources and careful money management by the administration and staff, the school department is requesting $374,000 less from the taxpayers of Calais for the 2005-06 year,” they said in their letter.

According to the PTA, school officials also agreed to cut $169,000 from its contingency fund to help lower the mill rate in the city.

But the PTA wonders at the additional $103,000 the school department is being asked to cut.

The additional cuts, Underwood said, would reduce the contingency account to around $14,000. Not a lot of money, he said, if a boiler at the high or elementary schools decided to give up the ghost. “We still have a couple of old boilers that we need to replace,” he said.

But Mayor Vinton Cassidy said he believed the school department had both a contingency as well as a surplus account to cover those kinds of emergencies because the city had two accounts.

He said the city has held the line on its own budget. “So we felt that the school budget, we looked at that [and] they obviously have much, much more – I think almost a million dollars more this year than they did a year ago,” he said.

He said he felt it would be “immoral” if city officials didn’t pass those savings on to property taxpayers.

But Underwood fears that the school committee may be forced to make decisions that could jeopardize the city’s two schools.

Several years ago, state budget cuts forced school officials to cut corners. They stopped spending money on maintenance and eventually the Calais Middle School fell into disrepair and had to be closed for health and safety reasons.

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