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Originally published in Castine Patriot, February 8, 2018 and Island Ad-Vantages, February 8, 2018 and The Weekly Packet, February 8, 2018
School boards, superintendents craft 2018-19 budgets under public eye

by Anne Berleant

Local schools use the lion’s share of taxpayer money in area towns—in Penobscot three times more than the municipal budget in 2017 and in Brooklin and Blue Hill about twice as much—but they also are a big part of their community and its identity.

“Of course it’s going to cost me money but it is our island school, our identity and our future!” one resident answered in a 2016 community survey on Deer Isle-Stonington schools, which cost taxpayers over $6 million annually, and nearly 75 percent of the 223 survey respondents agreed.

Yet despite the millions of dollars budgeted for schools, most citizens rarely get involved before raising their hand at town meeting or, in Deer Isle-Stonington, at the district-wide CSD 13 public meeting and the budget validation referendum vote.

But a school budget takes months of preparation and meetings before a final version is presented to voters, and citizens have opportunities to contribute, mainly but not only at board meetings.

“They could talk to the principal, a school board member or me, if they have any concerns,” Union 93 Superintendent Mark Hurvitt said, noting that during the budget process, no decisions are made outside of a board meeting.

Also, the evolving budget drafts are public documents and anyone may request a copy from the Union 93 or Union 76 offices.

Not starting with a ‘wish list’

So, how does a school decide how much money it needs to operate? The principal works with the superintendent and union business manager to create an initial draft, and then the board, over several weeks, reviews each line item.

“[We] tease out a lot of details,” Hurvitt said, like projected high school tuition costs, heating oil, bus fuel, liability insurance, and the like. “I don’t want to present the board with a wish list but a reasonable first draft.”

Budgets will go through up to eight drafts before a board approves them, with the process usually including review by a town budget committee and/or selectmen.

“It’s all a process,” Hurvitt said. “If it’s up like 12 percent then I keep working on it. … If you want something you have to give up something. There are a lot of competing priorities.”

Of course, the final decision lies with voters at town meeting, who must first approve warrant articles for specific costs, and then approve the overall budget. By that time, Hurvitt said, there should be no surprises.

But it’s not always cut-and-dried. Island citizens sent the 2015-16 CSD 13 budget back to the board three times by failing to pass the referendum vote. And voters will occasionally try to add to the school budget from the floor at town meeting. In Brooksville in 2014, voters unsuccessfully tried to reinstate funds for teachers, support positions and programs cut from the budget. While boards strive to present low or no increases to voters, substantial increases to support new programs can and do win approval, as in Blue Hill and Sedgwick to fund new pre-K programs.

“We try to make it so it’s not a secret, and get input on the way,” Hurvitt said.