After hours of meetings, Vassalboro school and town officials have come up with a budget to present to voters on June 4 that pleases few if any of them.
The major problem is that if voters approve the expenditures proposed by the school board and selectmen, they will increase their tax rate by 0.90 mils (90 cents for each $1,000 of valuation), from the current 14.55 mils to a projected 15.45 mils. According to figures Town Manager Mary Sabins prepared for the May 2 selectmen’s meeting at which the town meeting warrant articles were approved:
- The proposed $2.061 million municipal budget for 2018-19 has gone up a little more than two percent over the current year, but because non-tax revenues are expected to increase, the municipal budget will require over $27,000 less in taxes.
- The $335,327 Kennebec County tax, which the town is obligated to pay, is up four percent, adding close to $13,000 due from taxes.
- The $7.731 million school budget, by far the largest of the three, will require well over $328,000 in additional tax revenue, by Sabins’ calculations.
The town meeting warrant consists of 56 articles to be decided June 4 and two more that voters will act on at the polls on June 12, ratifying or rejecting the school budget approved June 4 and electing local officials (one selectman and one school board member).
The June 4 open meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. at Vassalboro Community School. In addition to budget issues, voters will elect budget committee members, set various policies and approve or reject amendments to Vassalboro’s Building Permit Ordinance. There are currently two vacancies on the budget committee, and Elizabeth Reuthe said she does not intend to serve again.
After long discussions, the budget committee voted to differ with selectmen on one expenditure article and with school board members on another.
The selectmen propose setting aside $37,500 from taxes for two reserve funds, $25,000 to go toward a new plow truck and $12,500 as half the estimated cost of a new metal roof on the Riverside fire station. The budget committee recommends the same amounts, but advocates taking the $37,500 from the town’s surplus (also known as unassigned or undesignated fund balance) instead of from taxes.
In the school budget, the school board recommends for Vassalboro Community School administration $329,119.48, a 14 percent increase from the current year, primarily because the incoming principal will command a higher salary than the outgoing one. The budget committee recommends $279,119.48, or $50,000 less.
Several budget committee members said their goal is to make sure there is a debate over school spending on June 4. In recent years, voters impatient to end the meeting have approved voting on all the school budget articles as a group, an action that has had the effect of limiting discussion.
The school board approved its budget recommendations at a special meeting on April 25, after earlier discussions in March and April. The vote was not unanimous; Susan Tuthill was absent and Jessica Clark voted against the budget request, explaining afterward that she believes the resulting tax increase is “too much for the town.”
School board members have repeatedly revised the budget downward. At the April 25 meeting, AOS (Alternative Organizational Structure) #92 Superintendent Eric Haley and Finance Director Paula Pooler presented what they consider the final cuts and rearrangements they can safely recommend.
They hope for state approval for two new buses this year. They could ask for one, Haley said – and risk student safety. Similarly, they could assume one fewer home-schooler will enter high school at town expense in 2018-19 – and risk a major hole in the budget.
School Board Chairman Kevin Levasseur and retiring Principal Dianna Gram urged support of the budget request. Gram said Vassalboro Community School is dealing with the difficult task of accommodating special-needs students without shortchanging regular students. The number of very expensive out-of-district placements has declined during her tenure, she said, especially since the school’s student support center opened.
Gram said 29 percent of VCS students need some kind of special help. School board member Jolene Clark Gamage expects the number will increase, primarily due to Maine’s drug problem.
If voters reject the budget, Pooler said the only way to get a meaningful decrease would be to cut personnel, a move Haley said “would decimate the school.”
Budget committee members are distressed at the tax increase, and also unhappy with the school board’s decision to sign a three-year contract to continue using Waterville’s central office services despite the dissolution of the AOS. Several committee members suggested school board members had accepted Haley’s advice to stay with Waterville without adequately researching alternatives.
Budget committee members pointed out repeatedly that school choice – allowing Vassalboro high school students to go wherever they want – is a costly option. Eliminating choice and requiring town-supported students to attend only one high school would need voters’ approval, and they are aware that school choice has wide support among residents.
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