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Town Council & School Board Deal With Budget Issues

By: David Deschesne

Fort Fairfield Journal, May 2, 2012


School Administrative District (SAD) #20 in Fort Fairfield will be requesting an additional $70,000 from the town if their upcoming 2012-13 budget is approved by the voters in Fort Fairfield next month. Town manager, Dan Foster has expressed some concern over the additional money requested, considering the town's recent loss of the Atlantic Custom Processors building complex from its tax base, and reduced state subsidies. Foster explained the situation to the Fort Fairfield town council during their April meeting.


 MP3 audio files of Fort Fairfield Town Council meetings are now available on this website.  Click here for index 

In the tax year of 1982, the school received 48% of the taxes raised and the town, 48%. In 2000 the school received 70% of the taxes raised and the town, 24%. “My feeling at that time was that was not equitable and I felt that there were deficiencies in the community because of that,” said Foster. “What we have done since I have been town manager is the 70% for the school has gone down to about 59% and the town is at 36%.”

In Presque Isle 41% of the taxes raised go to the school, in Caribou it's around 43%. “When you look at communities that are closer to our size like Fort Kent, it's 55%.”

“It is very clear to me when I look at what's going on at the State level, when I look at the issue around government resources continuing to be restricted, the issue is how do we as two entities work to share what is becoming a scarcer and scarcer resource.”

SAD #20 Superintendent, Marc Gendron stated that in the last four years the school board has cut $369,805 from their budget and in the past twelve years has eliminated twenty positions district-wide—thirteen alone at the Middle/High School.

"In the last two years we have avoided $350,000 in penalties by forming an AOS for the two years that penalties for non-compliance were in effect,” said Gendron. “From 2009 to 2012, when State and Medicare budgeted reimbursements dropped by $369,252, SAD 20 received $96,492 in additional local funds. The difference was primarily made up by budget cuts and use of reserve funds.”

Foster says he's not interested in creating a “we vs. them” adversarial arrangement between the town and the school district, because SAD #20 “is Fort Fairfield.” “I want to approach this problem in such a way that we actually sit down and talk about how we can make this work and we compromise and talk through it and work it out. That's how constructive, positive proactive government is supposed to work. Just because we don't see it on the national level doesn't mean we can't do it on the local level.”

Foster recently visited the SAD #20 school board and shared with them the town's financial position, similar information that he has already shared during meetings with the town council, the local V.F.W., the local senior citizens groups and Fort Fairfield Rotary Club. The issue centers around reduced revenues to the town and also the significant issue of losing a plant from the tax roles. “My comment to the school board was that I really think they need to sit down with the town council and determine what is an appropriate percentage. I don't think it should be 50/50. I think the school has a greater need, they spend a lot more money than we do and I don't have a problem with that. But, I think there should be a number that we agree upon. I think that's equitable. We know what we're going to get, we work within the parameters, if we feel we have to raise taxes, we do it collectively, together. That was my message to the school board; how do we do this together? So, I had that meeting. I don't get a phone call from anybody. I get absolutely no feedback, either from the Superintendent, any of the administrators who were at that meeting, or any of the school board members. I get nothing.”

Gendron noted that local mils raised for education are down 9.85% while the Town's valuation is up 19.6% and student count as of April 1, 2012 is up 2.3%. “In the past seven years, including the proposed 2012-13 budget, SAD #20 will have requested an average annual increase of 1.29%. Every penny is appreciated,” he said. “Our current budget proposal is our best effort to meet the needs of our students for the least total cost possible. The School Board of SAD 20 has voted unanimously to move forward with this budget.”

“Mark's concern - and I'm not saying it's not legitimate - is that the town's valuation is going up and it has for the last four or five years and they're not getting any of it. I think that that's a valid point,” said Foster.

Foster says when budget issues arise, the answer cannot automatically be to raise the mil rate. “That cannot be the automatic answer. The only way we can get around that is we have to communicate and we have to work together to find common solutions where it is not just an off-the-cuff answer like, 'we'll just raise the mil rate.' That is not acceptable in my mind. I am so disappointed that everything I said to the school board, as sincere as I knew how to say it, just apparently fell on deaf ears.”

Indicating it appears to be an incredibly poor precedent, Foster noted the town of Fort Fairfield historically tries to work with others. “We've always worked well together, not just with the school but with anyone and I do not want to damage that in any way. But this is not constructive, it is not helpful and there needs to be a better way of us working through these issues.”

Town council member, Terry Greenier suggested that in the future the school's budget review should be integrated in with the town's departments and operate under the same reporting procedures. However, Foster explained that would be possible only if the school were not an S.A.D.; then it would be considered a department of the town. “What the S.A.D. does is creates a separate legal entity. When SADs were originally created back in the 1960s, they were designed for multi-governmental jurisdictions,” explained Foster. “In our case, S.A.D. #20 is only Fort Fairfield, which is unique, there's only one or two of them in the state. What this means is they have their own public hearing and at that meeting, whoever shows up as citizens of Fort Fairfield votes on the school budget, which creates the legal authority to create the payment that is then due from the town.”

Historically, the only Fort Fairfield citizens who generally show up to the S.A.D. #20 budget vote are employees of the school, which virtually guarantees no opposition to it. There are usually no more than twenty-five of those citizens in attendance to vote on a nearly $7 million dollar annual budget.

“Once they have that vote, they can submit a bill to the town of Fort Fairfield and by law the taxpayers are required to pay it. They have a process that is completely separate from ours. If enough people showed up to that school budget meeting and voted no on the budget the school board would have to go back and do it again. So, it's a whole separate process.”

The voters in Fort Fairfield will have the opportunity to vote on the SAD #20 budget request at the district budget hearing on May 17th at 6:30 at Fort Fairfield Middle/High School.

Foster says one of the things that's not helpful about the school's budget is it is strictly budget numbers. “There is nothing here that shows actual money spent. So you can't compare year-to-year, all you can compare is budgets. As we all know, budgets are not actuals. The other thing is that there is no balance sheet. So you have no idea of the resources that are available to the school. So, those would be the sorts of things that if we were all sitting down together, I would be asking.”

Last year, the town took out of its savings account so the school could receive a $68,000 increase in its budget. “I was in favor of that and that was fine. Of course, at the time I wasn't thinking we were going to be losing the plant either, that was never part of the equation. I didn't doubt necessarily the need, but I didn't question it either. We spent out of our savings account so they could get the increase and didn't have to spend out of theirs. We can't do that this year.”

Gendron says SAD #20 has been working very hard to provide the best educational opportunity for the students of Fort Fairfield while economizing efforts to limit the tax burden on the citizens of our district and Both are works in progress.

The Middle/High School was on the U.S. News and World Report list of the best 10 schools in Maine in 2010. “This year, our Elementary School was on the most improved list of schools in Maine based on the most recent NECAP scores. We were ranked 48th out of 227 schools and went up 80 places from last year’s results. Our entire staff is keenly aware that it is all about improving and we still have work to do.”



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