A months-old dispute between the Millinocket school department and town council over municipal finances came to a head at an emotional four-hour town council meeting on Thursday night.
Town administrators aimed for peace, urging the school department to cooperate with them and reach a resolution to pass a new school department budget.
“I’m very sorry by the role my administrative error played in what played out the past week. I’ve dedicated the last four years of my professional life to support this region, specifically this town,” said Town Manager Peter Jamieson. “Lately, I have not been able to go to the grocery store, the gas station or even the dump. It’s really, really deeply saddening.”
Millinocket has not yet passed a school budget despite a new fiscal year starting July 1. That has been the center of a fierce exchange between school administrators, staff and town council members as well as anonymous threats for town councilors on social media. Though no resolution has been reached yet, the meeting seemed to signal a move forward toward an approved budget.
On Thursday, Jamieson said the budget dispute stemmed from last fall, when an auditor discovered that the school department controlled bank accounts outside that town’s outside oversight containing $630,000, which violated state law.
Neither School Superintendent Dr. Joshua McNaughton nor the school board attended Thursday’s meeting. The town council scheduled the meeting despite knowing he would be unable to attend, McNaughton said in an email to the Bangor Daily News on Thursday afternoon.
McNaughton has said he was unable to present a budget proposal to the school board because he doesn’t have access to all department bank accounts, which are under the auspices of the town. He also accused the town council last week of directing the treasurer to stop payment on a school warrant — which proved to be true; the town manager did it at the behest of the council — that would have frozen three weeks of wages for school staff, which led to frustration and alarm from staff members who worried they wouldn’t be paid.
Town officials said that the school department has access to all of its accounts but the department hasn’t presented a balanced proposal. Some money budgeted for the new fiscal year was based on old numbers that had been allocated in the previous year’s budget, they said.
The council voted last week to approve the payroll warrant.
Jamieson choked up with tears several times at the Thursday council meeting as he apologized for the miscommunication that had led staff to panic they would not be paid. He also apologized for the bitter relationship that developed between town officials and the school department.
Community members applauded his humility.
“It does take a large person to apologize for a mistake,” said Kyle Leathers, a Stearns High School teacher. “I am very happy to hear that we want to move forward. And I think it certainly is possible after tonight. But I think it is going to take a little bit of time to heal.”
Other council members spoke about how the dispute harmed relationships they had with other community members in the small 4,000-person former mill town.
“This has gone and snowballed into something that has gotten ugly, more than I can tell you, and it saddens me that people that I have known my entire life won’t speak to me,” councilor Michael Madore said. “Budgets are prepared, but they’re paper. I just want to go ahead and get back to some kind of normalcy.”
Town Council Chair Steve Golieb said he forwarded posts made on Reddit, an internet message board, to East Millinocket police that advocated for Millinocket town councilors to be beaten and hanged for falsely withholding wages.
Though some commenters’ identities weren’t public, Reddit did suspend the account of the person who advocated for hanging.
East Millinocket Police Chief Cameron McDunnah did not respond to a request for comment, though a police officer attended Thursday’s meeting to ensure the councilors’ safety.
Two councilors, Matthew Bragdon and Jane Danforth, said they met with McNaughton earlier this week to discuss the possibility of mending fences and working to avoid the possibility of another such dispute ever occurring again.
“I’m hoping that this is going to be a turning point, to move forward. There is a lot of healing that has to take place in the town and we all want to prosper,” Danforth said.