by Nat Frothingham
Forget about the freezing temperatures in Calais on March 4. Indoors, at 9 a.m., when the Calais school meeting was gaveled into order, the potbellied stove was cranking out heat, and about 200 people had already assembled. That number only grew, and by 9:30 a.m., it was standing room only. Talking to The Bridge about this year’s attendance a day after town meeting, Calais town clerk Donna Fitch said, “It was a great crowd.”
This year’s banner Town Meeting Day attendance was dramatically different from last year’s (2013) attendance. Last year, Town Meeting Day was organized differently. The town meeting portion started things off in the morning with the school meeting following in the afternoon.
By that time, Fitch said, “There were only 30 people [in the hall] to pass the big school budget.” As she observed, “The school meeting is the meeting you should come to and vote, because that is where the big money is.”
This year’s much stronger attendance is in all likelihood the result of a decision to put the school meeting early in the day—from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. The school budget presentation, discussion and budget happened first, followed by town meeting and then ending with any unfinished school meeting business in the afternoon.
The decision to shift school meeting to the morning was explained by the Calais Board of School Directors in the Annual Report. “We hope to enable as many people as possible to take part in the vote on the Calais Elementary School budget, the first item of business after electing our moderator. . . . In years past, town meeting has largely eclipsed the school meeting and left voters spent, with little appetite for another round. . . . In decisions as important as the ones we voters are called to make, everyone should be able to participate.”
The school meeting got going right on time at 9 a.m. when Calais resident Craig Line was elected moderator. After the moderator’s appeal for politeness and civility and an explanation of rules and procedures, there was a speech from School Director Susanna Culver, thanking departing school director and chair Scott Thompson for his years of service.
Then Vice Chair Charlotte Hanna Bassage presented the school district budget proposal: Would the voters “adopt a total budget in the amount of $1,980,384 for the 2014-2015 school year”? Bassage organized her remarks into three sections: budget, roof and taxes.
As she explained it, enrollment at the Calais Elementary School has been pretty consistent with student numbers varying from a low of 119 students in FY06 to a high of 153 in FY09 to 133 in FY13 and 134 in FY14. Expenses have been trending upward, but modestly, with actual spending in FY2007 of $1,532,106 to the proposed 2014 budget of $1,980,384 for the 2014–2015 school year. Bassage put the Calais Elementary School in a statewide perspective by noting that the school is ranked 66 out of 106 elementary schools across the state in per pupil spending. As she said, “Nowhere near the top.”
“We need a new roof,” Bassage said about the elementary school building. But the school directors have taken an incremental approach. “We divided up the roof into six sections, and we pay for that with [annual] savings.” Overall, the Calais school directors were asking Calais taxpayers to approve a rise of 1.86 percent in the elementary school budget.
But then there’s the Calais share of the Union 32 High School spending, as well as the various state impacts in the way property values are calculated in the Common Level of Appraisal and the impacts of a rise in the statewide education tax. “Increases in the statewide education tax,” Bassage observed, “are enormous.”
Despite the very modest local increase in elementary school spending, the impacts of the U-32 contribution, state funding formulas for property appraisals and the statewide tax rate mean that a Calais resident will be paying about $238 more in taxes per $100,000 of property value.
At the conclusion of Bassage’s presentation, there was a remark from the floor: “Times are tough for everyone, for seniors.” The remark was followed by a motion to cut the proposed school budget by 10 percent or about $198,000.
Discussion followed. “Right now is not the time to cut the budget,” one Calais resident said. “Go to the budget meetings. That was the time to cut the budget. They invited people to come in. Nobody came.”
Another resident, a parent of school-age children, said, “Our kids need to compete with kids around the world. We can’t afford to cut.”
Another voter said she had watched children being driven to school by their parents. She noted that school buses regularly stop for children, but the children aren’t coming out to the buses. “Johnny is being driven to school by his mom or dad,” she said, suggesting that transportation costs in the school budget could be cut.
The motion to cut the school budget was voted down. And the budget as presented was approved.
Following a brief intermission, the people present shifted gears from the schools to the town. Up for discussion and vote were four proposals that would change the traditional practice of town meeting, which entails a meeting of the voters, a discussion of the articles, a chance to amend the articles from the floor and an immediate vote.
All four proposals proposed the use of an Australian ballot (paper ballot) for voting on the school budget, for Kellogg-Hubbard Library funding requests, for all public questions not having to do with money and for any question coming to the voter that does deal with money. All four of these proposals, which would make almost every decision by secret paper ballot, were defeated.