MADAWASKA, Maine — As many students in the St. John Valley return to school this week, voters in Madawaska have for the second time in two months rejected a proposed budget to pay for that education.
During Tuesday’s validation referendum, residents handily defeated by a vote of 425 to 197 the proposed $6.3 million budget for the 2016-17 school year. Local voters had rejected 517 to 353 an initial $6.4 million budget at referendum on June 14.
The latest proposal had been approved by a show of hands with about 50 people present during a public hearing in July as part of a two step process that next required the validation vote.
Until a new budget can be validated at the ballot box, the school department will operate on the $6.3 million budget OK’d at that July hearing.
Last year, School Superintendent Gisele Dionne and school committee members saw voters reject proposed budgets twice before voters finally gave their approval.
Due to a hectic Wednesday schedule, Dionne directed inquiries regarding the budget vote to her personal Facebook page, where she had posted comments.
“One problem is apathy,” Dionne wrote. “We have 436 students. However, there were less than 200 votes in favor of the budget. Demographics have changed — it is apparent, we know it, and we’re feeling it.”
Dionne urged parents or others concerned about school spending to attend school board meetings and public information sessions, like the ones her office offered throughout the budgeting process this spring.
“Inform yourselves about local and state school funding,” the superintendent stressed. “Get to know some of the real issues we are facing.”
Dionne previously has cited $333,000 in obligated funds and a reduction in state education funding as contributing factors to this proposed budget being higher than last year’s $6 million budget.
In the past months, members of the town’s finance committee urged the school department to make additional cuts and further reduce the local tax burden.
The revised school budget calls for raising an additional $756,867 above what the state considers necessary for essential services and programs.
The finance committee favors reducing the budget to the state minimum for essential services and recommends that the school department eliminate three teaching positions, one guidance counselor and two clerical positions.
“You can bring the school to EPS levels, if that’s what people want,” Dionne said earlier this summer at a school committee meeting. She warned, however, that the consequences would likely include eliminating sports, advanced placement classes, music, band, electives, and most other extracurricular activities. Reducing to EPS minimums also would adversely impact dining services and transportation, she said previously.
Town Manager Ryan Pelletier said Wednesday that it was frustrating having voters reject multiple school budgets.
“It uses a lot of resources and energy that could be applied elsewhere,” he said in an email. “The crux of the issue is student enrollment continues to decline while the local share of education continues to rise.”
Pelletier said that, although the cost per pupil in Madawaska is similar to other St. John Valley school systems — approximately $13,000 — the state funds local education differently in each community.
“Our town is not a high receiver [of state aid], so the burden is much greater for the local tax payers compared to other communities,” he said in the email.
Members of Madawaska’s finance panel also have recommended regionalization of schools and shared services among St. John Valley school systems as a means of reducing the local school budget.
Dionne, who was hired as superintendent at the start of last school year, commented in her Facebook post on Wednesday that school administrators have been looking into such options as school closures, school consolidation and strategic plans.
“We’re on it but it won’t happen overnight,” she wrote.
Pelletier said he knows that “school leaders are having those conversations, but I don’t believe the public is all that aware of what is being discussed and perception is a lot of people’s reality.”
With the latest budget rejection, school committee members and Dionne will once again scrutinize budget items and anticipated revenue sources in an effort to build a proposal that is acceptable to voters.
“Being any type of leader in Madawaska is not easy. Everyone has an opinion or viewpoint, yet few want to roll up their sleeves and actually get involved,” Dionne said in the Facebook post.
The superintendent commended those residents who have chosen to serve on local boards, including her school committee.
“They have stuck out their necks and are doing the best that they can,” she said.
The department has between 10 and 45 days to develop and present a revised budget at public hearing.
Once again, the new budget will have to be passed at both that hearing and the subsequent validation referendum to be gain final approval.