Mt. Blue budget passes: Subcontracting off the table
FARMINGTON – Public outrage gave way to last-minute diplomacy at Monday evening's Mt. Blue Regional School District budget meeting, leading to the passage of the $28.9 million budget after the school board agreed to rescind the administration's authority to subcontract out custodial services.
More than 100 people attended the meeting, spending more than an hour on Article 1, with all voters who chose to speak indicating their opposition to a proposal to subcontract out custodial services for the school district. At the April 26 meeting, directors voted to give Superintendent Michael Cormier the authority to contract with a private janitorial company, if necessary, to achieve $200,000 in savings. Subcontracting out custodial service was estimated to eliminate 18 custodial jobs and 23 health insurance packages, as 21 bus drivers also work as custodians and qualify for full-time benefits.
Residents of the 10 towns that comprise the district, some support staff members, others unaffiliated, spoke against the proposal. In addition to being opposed to subcontracting out services in general, some expressed concern and anger with the budget process and the ongoing negotiations between the support staff and district. At last week's mediation, according to a letter to the editor submitted by the support staff's lead negotiator Doug Hodum, the support staff offered concessions to cover the $115,000 directors put back into the original budget. Those expenditures include $30,000 for technical support and $35,000 for special education behavioral services, as well as two teaching positions.
"It's like being in an auction," support staff member Wenda Hunter said. "Bidding against yourself."
Selectman Kathleen Lynch of Temple recalled when the original MSAD 9 district formed, saying people had complained that the community-oriented nature of the schools would be threatened. This proposal, she said, was the first time she felt that threat had been realized.
"You're asking us to vote for something today that we do not approve," Lynch told the school board.
Other residents complained that the subcontracting proposal was a tactic to "bully" the support staff, and that they didn't trust the administration or school board. Multiple directors called for speakers to be respectful.
"To hear what I've been hearing," Director Mark Prentiss of Industry said, "it really is a bit shocking."
Board members who spoke in favor of the subcontracting proposal did so as the latest of a series of cuts in the face of reduced state and federal funding for schools. Director Claire Andrews of Farmington listed programs and positions cut since she arrived on the board four years ago, including tech integrators, elementary school world language and courses at the middle school. The subcontracting proposal, Andrews said, was the result of an "extended process."
"We're at a point now, where we've cut everything we can cut," Andrews said.
Hodum said that the support staff had wanted to be part of that process, and had requested in the past to sit down with the finance committee and administration when subcontracting was discussed.
"Now there's a public perception that we are part of the problem," Hodum said, "and we want to be part of the solution." He added that putting the reduction "on the backs of the people who can least afford it" was "incomprehensible."
"The best thing we can do is vote the entire budget down," resident Bob Neal of New Sharon said.
Ed David of Farmington moved to amend Article 1, $9.09 million for Regular Instruction, to $1. Moderator Ron Aseltine, after consulting with the school district's legal representative, ruled that motion out of order. Aseltine said it was tantamount to passing no budget, which he said was the responsibility of the meeting. Instead, those in attendance were advised to approve a budget and then vote "no" at the validation referendum on Thursday. Those in attendance spoke against that proposal, refusing to support the budget Monday evening.
At that point, board members called for a recess to discuss available options. Meeting in one corner of the gym, directors talked about taking subcontracting off the table in order to get the budget passed. There is not believed to be an enormous difference between the $200,000 in savings in Article 8, Transportation and Buses, and Article 9, Facilities Maintenance, and the concessions offered by the support staff negotiating team before mediation broke down last week. That difference, Cormier noted, could be covered by shifting funds out of the carry forward balance surplus.
Directors brought Hodum over to present what Glass would later describe as "assurances." A majority of the directors indicated they would move to rescind the subcontracting proposal at the next available opportunity, if the support staff negotiating team would honor its latest offer if and when negotiations begin again.
"We can't do the negotiating," Glass said at the board meeting following the budget meeting, "but we can give each other some assurances."
Hodum took the proposal back and eventually the budget meeting resumed. Glass told those attending the meeting that the board was willing to take subcontracting off the table. The 16 budget articles then passed within 20 minutes, setting a $28,907,417 budget in place for the next fiscal year. The validation vote for that budget is Thursday.
After the budget meeting, directors met for a previously-scheduled board meeting. Some expressed disappointment with tone of the meeting, while others were pragmatic.
"We had to come up with a response," Director Helen Wilkey of Vienna said, in regards to taking the subcontracting off the table. "I'm not bent out of shape about it. It's democracy in action."
In that board meeting, selectmen voted to rescind the authority of the district's administration to contract out janitorial services to a private company. That motion also included language to the effect that there existed an understanding that the latest offer made by the support staff negotiating team would be honored as a starting point for future negotiations. Directors met briefly in executive session with legal counsel during that meeting, in order to inform directors not on the district's negotiating team what the latest offer was. Director Keith Swett of Wilton and Director Paul Druan of Weld were opposed to the motion.