February 9

Winthrop voters to consider school budget

Seven months after the school budget was first presented, voters will head to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to accept the $10 million package, which is down slightly from last year.

By Craig Crosby ccrosby@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Winthrop residents will head to the polls Tuesday to decide on a budget for a school year that is more than half-complete.

Voting on the nearly $10 million budget is scheduled for noon to 7 p.m. at the Town Office at 17 Highland Ave.

School Superintendent Gary Rosenthal hopes the budget, which he noted carries no tax increase and actually decreases spending by more than $500 from the 2012-13 school year, will meet with voters’ approval.

“We are hopeful that this budget, which is very efficient, will be approved by the voters,” he said.

The vote is the next and potentially final step in a six-month-plus effort to approve a budget for the 2013-14 school year. The process began in June 2013, when the budget was introduced initially, and was stalled along the way by an auditor’s investigation into the school’s spending practices and an effort by the Town Council to force teachers to pay a greater share of their health insurance premiums. Rosenthal has said work will begin shortly to prepare a budget for the 2014-15 school year, leaving the possibility that school officials will have to rework this year’s school budget while simultaneously preparing next year’s budget.

If voters reject the 2013-14 budget, there will be additional votes every 45 days until a budget is approved. The school will continue to operate on the 2012-13 budget until a budget is approved. The board, in creating each new budget, would try to determine what is most important to the voters in an effort to win their approval.

“If the budget does not pass, we are back to the drawing board,” Rosenthal said.

Still, he is hopeful the budget will pass. Rosenthal said residents have voiced support for the budget, which he said includes funding for important resources, such as transitioning to e-books at the middle and high schools and other technology upgrades.

“We really do believe that the voters will send a positive message about their belief in, and value of, the schools and programs,” Rosenthal said.

The proposed budget closely mirrors a proposal town councilors rejected in June after an auditor flagged problems in more than 20 school spending accounts. Councilors froze spending from the accounts and delayed the budget process until the completion of a more thorough audit, the results of which were presented in September.

Councilors and school officials addressed spending in the problem accounts, and the processes resumed until the budget went to a public hearing last month. At the conclusion of that hearing, councilors voted to trim $100,000 from the instruction line item of the budget in an effort to force the school board to revamp the teachers’ contract to require the educators to pay a greater share of their health insurance premiums. Teachers now pay nothing for individual coverage and 15 percent of premiums for plans that include spouses and families. Councilors have long hoped to alter the contract to make the teachers’ contract more closely resemble that of other town employees.

Councilors met in a special session a week later to restore the $100,000 after the school board indicated the cut could lead to the layoff of as many as 10 teachers.

Town Council Chairman Kevin Cookson said the council for years has sought to adjust teachers’ contributions to health insurance. That goal has become more urgent as Winthrop, like other towns, faces dwindling revenue from the state. Winthrop must find ways to reduce spending, Cookson said.

“I believe a reduction in all health care costs to all town employees is a start,” he said. “Not many places pay 100 percent for the employees anymore.”

Cookson said the town’s undesignated fund balance, or reserve, is now down to a couple weeks’ worth of operating expenses. The auditor has suggested a safety cushion of at least two months’ worth.

“The council has for years supplemented the school budget with money from the undesignated fund balance,” Cookson said. “That is so dangerously low now the town can’t afford to continue to operate in the same manner as, say, four or five years ago.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642ccrosby@centralmaine.com
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