Caribou councilor calls out superintendent over potential budget increase
CARIBOU, Maine — Caribou city councilor Doug Morrell accused RSU 39 (Caribou and Stockholm) of lying to the public about the costs of a new pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school being constructed, and demanded that superintendent Tim Doak be brought before the council to explain himself.
“Somebody’s head should roll for this,” Morrell said.
Morrell’s reaction came after hearing that the RSU 39 (Caribou and Stockholm) school budget could contribute to a 1.7 mill increase in the city’s annual taxes.
The $52,983,257 million school project is funded primarily by the Maine Department of Education, but RSU 39 area voters — which at the time included Limestone — voted for a $2,502,423 million addition to include extra gym and music room space. Local taxpayers are responsible for funding the additional space.
After voters approved building the school, RSU 39 received one lone bid on the project that was nearly $12 million over budget. The district made numerous cuts, and the Maine Department of Education agreed to cover the remaining $5 million difference. Although the district’s towns do not have to repay the $5 million, voters did need to approve the higher price tag via referendum.
Caribou City Manager Dennis Marker said the school’s annual budget estimates are not final, as they are still going through their budget process and the true amounts will not be known until the school district has budget meetings and residents approve final figures.
And while Marker did not mention the new school project when discussing RSU 39’s budget, Morrell specifically criticized the district’s handling of this project upon hearing the city manager’s report.
“Number one: citizens were told this wasn’t going to cost them one red dime,” the councilor said. “I think that’s gone to Hell in a handbag. Two: they knew damn well that Limestone was pulling out of this mess up here and they stomped their feet and continued on to build that school.”
Limestone officially voted to withdraw from RSU 39 in late 2018, and as part of the withdrawal agreement is paying RSU 39 $150,000 in two installments of $75,000 each. Doak said that Limestone’s $492,502 portion of the new school project is being paid by the state, which means the town’s withdrawal will not affect the costs related to the new school project.
With these one-time payments from Limestone no longer showing up on the school’s budget, the final figure reads as a revenue reduction of more than a half million dollars.
“I think the superintendent ought to be right here in this council chamber, so we can take the bark off him and find out what’s going on here. I can’t see letting it go,” Morrell said.
Since the meeting was broadcast via cable channel 1301 and YouTube, Doak said he has received multiple phone calls from concerned residents regarding the councilor’s comments.
“I don’t take any of that personally,” he said. “We have a great opportunity to have a new school, but the school project has nothing to do with our budget this year. I don’t know why those comments were made. I don’t even know the person.”
RSU 39 Business Manager Mark Bouchard said the budget for the new school project is separate from the rest of the school budget and in a completely different set of books, which the Maine Department of Education audits each month to ensure that no money is being added or removed.
Doak said that if the annual school district budget were passed as is, there would be a 1.7 mill increase, but the district is not finished making adjustments. “That’s not even close to where we want to be,” he said.
Doak said additional expenses this year would mostly be due to salary and insurance rate increases along with capital improvements — not the new school project. But several revenue sources, such as tuition and state funding, are unknown, so RSU 39 does not have an accurate idea of how the final budget will affect taxpayers.
“Insurance costs alone could affect the budget and less money from the state could do it too,” he said.
When creating budgets, Doak said RSU 39 looks at four primary factors: students, teacher development, maintaining competitive programs with other schools and the local taxpayers.
Doak said the new school project will save money by removing the need to heat and maintain several old buildings, but that he has never claimed it would reduce the overall tax rate.
“It will save money, but at some point taxes are going to go up because of other variables,” he said.
Marker told the council that the superintendent is “very much aware” of concerns about higher taxes and that the school board is working to get the budget down as much as it can.
“Bring him in,” Morrell said of the superintendent. “We’ll have a once over with him. Let him answer to the people.”
RSU 39 does not work for the Caribou City Council, and Doak said that he answers to the RSU 39 board of education, which answers to the residents of Caribou and Stockholm. The superintendent also encouraged any residents with questions about the budget to contact him for clarification.
“We’ll try to converse with the city as best we can, but going in front of the council would not be in the best interest of the school if it’s going to be a meeting like that,” he said. “I don’t think that’s an atmosphere anybody would want to go into.”
Mayor Mark Goughan said the council worked hard to obtain nearly half a million dollars in additional revenues by charging nearby towns a significantly increased rate for the fire and ambulance service, “only to have the school department grab that money.”
Doak said the school board has talked about this and that the members appreciate the hard work that the council did with the ambulance piece. He said the board is working to make sure that it doesn’t approach taxpayers with an inflated budget.
Councilor Joan Theriault said there would be a benefit to providing the public with more information when they go to vote and to getting the word out to more people about the school budget process. She said that voters ultimately have the power to turn down the RSU 39 budget.
Theriault said she has worked at the polls during school budget votes, and only seen a couple hundred people show up.
Morrell and other councilors agreed that the school could be doing more to inform the public about their budget process.
Doak pointed to the school district’s annual budget meetings in which large booklets detailing changes in each area of the school budget are given to those attending, and are further elaborated on during a powerpoint presentation. Residents are also given an opportunity to ask Doak, the board and the business manager about each item on the budget.
Voters approve each section of the budget during these annual meetings before it goes out to a general vote.
Councilor Nicole Cote said that while she appreciates the concerns being raised, she sees the new school as an economic development opportunity. She said the school had to cut athletic programs to pass its 2019 budget and that it’s important for residents to know what opportunities are at stake when voting on the budget.
Last year, RSU 39 had to cut both the swim and golf programs to bring its increases down to half a mill.
Doak said he and other school officials across Aroostook County are more concerned about how the COVID-19 pandemic could affect future budgets.
“Our biggest concern is the virus itself, and how it might affect the community’s ability to afford town and school budgets,” he said. “We’ve talked about that at length as superintendents in The County.”
Clarification: This story has been updated with exact figures for the state and local shares of the school project. It also clarifies that Councilor Nicole Cote said that athletic programs were cut last year.