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School committee looks to trim budget

MADAWASKA, Maine – Members of Madawaska’s school committee once again took up the 2016-17 budget during a regularly scheduled meeting, Monday, Jan. 23.

Superintendent Gisele Dionne presented committee members with several areas where she projects further savings could be realized, pending updated financial information from the school department’s bookkeeper.

The school department has been struggling since June to have voters approve a budget. The latest $6.3 million proposal failed to pass at a special town meeting, Dec. 19. That was the fifth time the school department has put a budget in front of voters. The first four times the department presented a budget this school year, it passed at town meeting, but voters subsequently defeated it at the budget validation referendum stage.

School directors had met twice last week with the town’s finance committee to review the budget line by line. During those sessions, finance committee members had initially recommended cuts totaling approximately $120,000, according to Dionne.

In response the school board came back last week with more than $72,000 in proposed savings, Dionne said. These included $26,000 anticipated savings in health insurance, $7,500 saved by eliminating the central office custodial services and $6,600 in deferred technology supplies, hardware and software expenses.

Also part of the proposed reductions from the school committee last week were $16,000 for spring sports coach stipends. Finance committee members rejected this elimination of sports programs, but did agree with the school committee regarding the other areas.

According to Dionne, the town finance committee has since requested she work with school directors to find an additional $60,000 in saving from this year’s proposed budget.

At Monday’s meeting, Dionne listed approximately $50,000 in possible reductions in several areas, based on deferred spending and curtailment of projected expenditures during the remainder of this budget cycle.

Dionne estimated that $12,000 could be saved by not hiring long-term substitute teachers, but only if current staff members do not get sick or injured for extended periods of time between now and the end of the school year. By deferring, for a fourth year, the purchase of new textbooks, the department could also save approximately $25,000, she said.

Dionne also said other “nickle and dime” savings may be realized by lower than anticipated fuel costs, switching phone services, deferring certain software updates and the resignation of some custodial staff.

Both Dionne and school board chair Bev Madore commented that any savings realized this year through deferred spending would have to be addressed in next year’s budget.

Following a review of financial figures and options, school committee members took no specific action Monday evening regarding any budget items. They anticipate another meeting with the town finance committee either Jan. 30 or Feb. 1.

By statute, the committee should have a budget ready for a public hearing within 45 days of the last failed vote. Dionne said there is no practical way to meet that requirement now. Members of the finance committee, she said, thought it more important to work together on refining the budget than to try and rush something through in order to meet a deadline.

The school is able to operate on a month-to-month basis, using the 2016-17 school budget approved by voters at the December public meeting. That budget subsequently failed at the budget validation referendum stage.

Any new budget must pass both the town meeting and a subsequent referendum vote in order to be approved.

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