BIDDEFORD – Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant doesn’t think residents have rejected the school budget three times because they don’t support the local school system.
Instead, said Casavant, who also heads the School Committee, it’s a tax rate issue. The new tax rate in Biddeford is $16.54 per $1,000 of valuation, which is an increase of $1.12 from last year’s rate of $15.42 per $1,000.
“I see these votes as votes against taxes. I know the tax bills played a role in this latest vote,” Casavant said this week. “I received calls from people concerned about their taxes going up by $400 or $700.”
On Sept. 20, Biddeford residents rejected a $32.6 million school budget for the second time, 1,035 against to 900 in favor. The vote represented the largest turnout yet for the citywide school spending referendum. A $33.1 million budget was rejected by voters on June 26. City and school officials are now working to cut another $500,000, with a new $32.1 million spending plan likely to face voters Nov. 6.
Although the margin of defeat last week was more than 130 votes, former Mayor Joanne Twomey requested a recount, which was held Monday at City Hall.
After the recount, there was only a two-vote difference in the final figures, which reduced the number of yes votes from 902 to 900, according to City Clerk Carmen Morris.
Twomey and resident Ron Peaker, who voted against the school budget, were in attendance to oversee the recount, along with five city councilors – Melissa Bednarowski, Brad Cote, Rick Laverriere, Mike Ready and Richard Rhames.
On Tuesday, Casavant said he was disappointed that the City Council did not approve cuts recommended by the School Committee before the latest round of voting, and said this time he would be more forceful on insisting that “we budget within our needs.”
Earlier this year, Casavant vetoed the initial school budget of $33.1 million, arguing it was too high and too big an impact on taxpayers.
Casavant believes a new school budget can pass on Nov. 6, the date now set for a fourth school spending referendum, if the School Committee and the City Council agree to further cuts totaling a little more than $500,000.
“My gut tells me that would be a good number,” Casavant said. “I just hope the City Council will listen this time. It’s been very frustrating to have the council fail to factor in the ability of residents to pay” when setting this year’s school and municipal budgets.
“I plan to be very clear that we have to respond to the voters,” he added. “I think the common feeling out there is that the budget is just too high.”
The School Committee was set to vote on a new budget Tuesday, after the Sun Chronicle’s deadline, and the City Council is expected to take up that budget and set a new referendum date during its meeting at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 2.
If another $500,000 cut in spending were approved by school and city leaders, voters would face a budget request of about $32.1 million in November. That would mean a total reduction of about $900,000 from the budget as initially proposed.
Superintendent Jeremy Ray said Tuesday he hopes the additional $500,000 in cuts he’s proposed will be enough to lead to a positive vote on Nov. 6.
“We really need to close the door on this budget,” Ray said, “and start thinking about our fiscal and educational future.”
He said there’s no doubt the three failed budgets have impacted the schools, but said that “good teaching and learning is still happening. Kids are arriving at school with smiles on their faces.”
Ray said the hardest thing about continually adjusting the bottom line is that it has been done on the fly, with no real plan in place.
“I’m really proud of our teachers and staff and how they’ve handled this, they’ve really done a remarkable job,” he said. “We will get through this and we will still be able to provide quality teaching and learning.”
Twomey said she did not expect the recount to change the results from last week, but requested it anyway because “this vote is too important and has too much weighing on it. I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
Last week, Twomey said she was frustrated that many of the people who came out to vote had not taken the time to educate themselves regarding the school budget.
"People will not get a different tax bill no matter what happens," she said. "People need to take responsibility for being educated on these issues."
The taxes for the new fiscal year were committed at the end of August and the tax rate was set based on a school budget amount of $32.6 million.
Assuming the final school spending package for this year is below that number, the extra collected in taxes would be put into a special account and used to offset school expenditures in the next fiscal year, Ray said.
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