2016-01-15 / Front Page

Towns/school seek to save

Proposal to share recreation department activities emerges
By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — The second “Dine and Discuss” gathering of town leaders and school officials, held Thursday, Dec. 7 at the Middle School of the Kennebunks, featured debate on how to save money, or to at least slow the growth of annual spending.

Town managers from Arundel, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, along with selectmen from each town, attended the session, as did RSU 21 Superintendent Katie Hawes and a host of school board members and district administrators.

About 35 people attended the session to hear about the so-called “budget drivers” fueling talks for the next fiscal year in each entity. Presentations from the Kennebunk Light and Power District and the Kennebunk-Kennebunkport Wells Water District also were part of the discussion.

However, one person did not make it though the entire two-hour event. Frustrated with a perceived lack of effort to find real savings, Kennebunk Selectman Richard Morin left in the middle of the session.

The budgetary brouhaha was still the talk of the table four nights later, when Arundel selectmen gathered for their regular business meeting.

“He thought it was a travesty. He thought it was all a waste of time, so he got up and left,” Arundel Selectman Daniel Dubois recounted before the opening gavel, for his peers who had not been present.

Those closer to Morin were more sympathetic.

“Maybe I was expecting a little too much, because the superintendent and the town managers have been meeting on a regular basis since our last session,” Kennebunk Selectman Ed Karytko said. “I was quite surprised that what we were given was basically an update on what each department was spending. That’s not what I expected and I don’t think that’s what Dick expected either.”

Karytko tried to bring up the possibility of combining snow plowing efforts, while Morin was focused on the potential savings of combining fuel and paper purchases.

“The frustration, I think, is that we were only told those things were looked at, but we weren’t given any real numbers. It just doesn’t seem like there is a sense of urgency on trying to make the bigger numbers happen,” Karytko said.

In a Dec. 11 email, Morin spoke about what prompted his decision to make a dramatic exit.

“There are many opportunities to combine services – if the leadership allows themselves to think outside of the box, creatively and without boundary. I truly thought that we were aligned in that belief,” Morin wrote. “But to return four months later with this presentation that not once addressed the work the managers suggest they’ve done since September was extremely frustrating. The four months of work produced not one viable suggestion, never mind solutions. I remain very disappointed.”

Morin did say the $2.4 million saved in interest payments over the 20-year life of the $56.5 million school renovation bond, approved by voters last June, is to be lauded. However, he said that result was more the workaday effort one would expect, rather than the product of a truly collaborative effort he expected.

Even with that savings, as well as about $200,000 realized in lower fuel costs and renegotiated MSK debt, the next RSU 21 budget is expected to jump at least 7.5 percent, based on the first $2 million renovation bond payment and a $1.3 million, 3.2-percent hike in school salaries.

“We thought it was important to start with all of the boards to hear one another,” Hawes said the day after the meeting, “and to hear the major things each one of us is facing as we move down the budget process and how all of these things impact taxes. I think it went well, overall.”

Coming out of perceived fiefdoms to work together can be a slow process, Hawes said, noting that she was happy to see school board members and town officials mingling together during the dinner portion of the event, as opposed to the September session, when each group tended to cluster together.

Hawes said the collaborative efforts suggested at the September meeting were indeed researched by herself and the town managers. The issue, she said, is that RSU 21 is currently part of a purchasing consortium. Leaving that to join with the towns on paper purchases would actually cost it more money, she said. While that amount was unspecified, leaving the current arrangement for fuel through the Maine Municipal Bond Bank for a town/ school partnership would cost $85,000 over current costs, she said.

“We looked at it and determined what we really need to do is stay with our current collaborative. That’s the most efficient for us to do right now,” Hawes said.

On plowing and mowing, Hawes said it was determined a shared effort would not save any money.

“It’s still going to take the same amount of equipment and the same amount of people and the same amount of time to cover the same amount of ground,” Hawes said. “We were asked to look into these things and we did take a good hard look at them.”

The best long-term prospect for saving money for all concerned, Hawes said, is to try and work on ways to convince more Arundel students to attend MSK instead of Thornton Academy Middle School when they leave the Mildred L. Day Elementary School.

Arundel entered into a 10-year contract with Thornton Academy in 2006 and when RSU 21 was created in 2009, an arbitrator ruled that Arundel students would retain choice, even after the contract ends June 30.

However, because it costs $7,400 to tuition Arundel students to TAMS – for a total $2.4 million, given about 40 students per grade level in Grades 6-12 – the district is paying more than it would cost to educate those students in district. Additionally, transporting those kids to Saco costs $250,000. Those costs come off the top of the RSU budget based on the district’s cost-sharing formula, meaning Kennebunk and Kennebunkport taxpayers cover 87 percent of the costs to educate Arundel students at Thornton Academy.

The solution hit upon by Hawes and the town managers, she said, was to try and get Arundel students to choose MSK over TAMS. And, the best way to do that, it was agreed, was to begin a process of sharing recreation programs between the school and the three towns.

The hope, said Hawes, is that if Arundel elementary students become familiar with local facilities, and make friends with kids of the Kennebunks, they will naturally choose to stay in district.

On Monday, Kennebunk Town Manager Barry Tibbetts said via email that, “The concept of jointly sharing recreation services for the younger grades was mentioned,” and that, “No decisions were made by the boards.”

Arundel Town Manager Keith Trefethen said the managers met with Hawes earlier that day, and that an agreement had been reached to meet with their respective recreation department heads on Feb. 3.

“We wouldn’t merge departments, but activities that the kids from the three towns could do together,” Trefethen said. “I’m quite satisfied with the results of the dine and discuss and hope we continue to have more of these meetings.”

Wm. Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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