FORT KENT, Maine — Roughly 12 hours after the proposed school budget was defeated at referendum for the third time, school board members and administrators of School Administrative District 27 met Wednesday morning to discuss their options.
“We need to figure out what do next about the budget. Where do you guys want to cut?” Chair Barry Ouellette asked his fellow board members during a meeting in the Fort Kent Community High School conference room. “Right now we’re in a position where we really can’t cut staff. We’ve got to pay them 90 days one way or the other. Whatever cuts we make have to impact education the least.”
During Tuesday’s referendum vote, the $12.1 million proposed budget failed to pass in four of the six towns comprising the district: Fort Kent, St. John Plantation, St. Francis and New Canada. Voters in Wallagrass and Eagle Lake — the two remaining district towns harboring outlying elementary schools — voted to pass the budget, but their numbers were not strong enough to overcome defeat in the more populous town of Fort Kent.
Board member Rep. John Martin, who represents Eagle Lake on the school board, said the vote nearly went another way in the voting booths of Eagle Lake. He cited a campaign by budget opponents who distributed fliers on the windshields of vehicles parked in an Eagle Lake church parking lot on Sunday, calling for voters to reject the budget.
Similar fliers also were placed on vehicles parked in church parking lots in Wallagrass and Fort Kent on Sunday.
According to Martin, the fliers backfired among voters in his town, where the budget proposal passed 175-125.
“I can tell you what happened in Eagle Lake. We had a massive revolution after Sunday. People were very upset at what took place at the church and immediately started to react,” he said. “People put together a letter and delivered it door to door. It said ‘Let the truth be told.’ You saw the votes for Eagle Lake. That was (a result of) the massive work of people from the PTA and local people who were upset with what took place.”
Martin recommended to board members that they distribute printed information educating the public about the budget in other district towns, before the next school budget vote.
“You have to follow up with written material somehow,” he said. “If we hadn’t done what we did, we would have had the same result in Eagle Lake as you did in Fort Kent, and that’s understandable because people react to what they have in their hand. … If nothing else, we proved in Eagle Lake that information makes a difference.”
In an interview Wednesday afternoon, one district resident who asked to remain anonymous said he was one of the people distributed fliers in the church parking lots. The man said it was not the intent of the flier distributors to inspire divisiveness among community members. “We’re concerned citizens, not trying to harm anybody. Just trying to get the word out and allow people to make their own decisions.”
He said he feels the fliers had little impact on Tuesday’s vote. “I don’t think it made much difference because the people had their minds made up already whether they were going to vote for (the budget) or against it.”
He said a lot of people were very disappointed and upset that the school board had just re-submitted the same budget that had been defeated at referendum in July for another vote Tuesday.
He added that those who distributed the fliers will not be doing so again prior to the next budget referendum. “We’re not going to do it again because we’re not going to infringe on the church or the priest.”
Ouellette, however, felt otherwise about the impact of the fliers. At Wednesday’s board meeting, he said the fliers denouncing the budget hurt the budget’s chances for successfully passing in Fort Kent. “The fire was set in the church parking lot,” he said.
Whether or not the handbills affected Tuesday’s vote, district officials said they will use printed materials to help inform voters before the next budget vote.
According to interim co-superintendent Peter Caron, a particular piece of budget information district officials plan to provide to the public before the next vote will regard Essential Programs and Services, or EPS, which is the state’s minimum school funding guidelines.
“Once they get information on EPS, they’re gonna find out we’re not out of line,” Caron said.
Martin said rural districts, such as SAD 27, have operational costs that more urban districts do not. He used transportation costs as an example.
“If you add up all the miles buses do on any given day in SAD 27, every day they travel from here to Virginia,” he said.
Lucie Tabor, the district director of finance, said that, per Department of Education guidelines, SAD 27 has until Oct. 30 to hold another public budget hearing.
Several members of the board expressed feelings of optimism that a new superintendent, which the board is in the process of hiring, may help to rectify the budget crisis.
Tim Doak, the former superintendent, left in August to take the same position at Regional School Unit 39, covering Caribou, Limestone and Stockholm.
“It would be nice to have our new superintendent bring in fresh eyes to look over the budget,” board member Sofia Birden said.
Caron said he is hoping to announce a new superintendent Friday, Sept. 18.