Brunswick budget forum draws small turnout

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BRUNSWICK — Fewer than a dozen residents voiced concerns about a projected $5 million budget gap during a Feb. 11 forum hosted by the Town Council.

The town meeting-style event was designed to gather input on how the council and School Board should address a shortfall that officials predict will lead to layoffs, larger classes and perhaps cuts in municipal services.

The town is predicting a $1 million shortfall because of cuts in state revenue sharing. The School Department is expecting losses of $4 million, driven largely by a proposed $2.9 million reduction in state aid.

Town and school officials have described the situation as a crisis. But those concerns are only just beginning to be shared by the public.

Last week’s forum drew 11 residents, many of whom hoped to preserve the town’s annual allocation to Curtis Memorial Library and TV 3.

Meanwhile, two residents, Pem Schaeffer and Fred Blanchard, told the council that now is the time to reign in teacher salaries.

The School Department is currently negotiating a new contract with the teachers union.

Blanchard said teacher salaries rose sharply over the last 10 years, despite a 22 percent decline in enrollment and a shrinking town population.

“I defy anyone to explain or show that improvements in student performance that warrants that kind of increase,” Blanchard said.

Blanchard said the School Board is in a position to rectify “the ridiculous” conditions during negotiations.

“I don’t have the power to fix the problem, but you do,” Blanchard said. “The question is if you have the courage to fix the problem.”

Schaeffer said that if teachers had been given cost-of-living increases instead of step increases, the School Department would have saved close to $4 million, equaling the department’s projected 2010-2011 shortfall.

“I think it’s time for the teachers to live in the real world,” Schaeffer said.

Other residents bristled at Schaeffer’s suggestion that the town’s annual allocation to the library is a “luxury.”

Carrie Strasburger described the library as the focal point of the community, adding that a smaller allocation would likely lead to reduced hours of operation.

“Those who can least afford it will suffer,” Strasburger said.

“(Cutting hours) will send a loud and clear message to the entire community,” she added. “And I don’t think it’s a message we want to be sending.”

Two other residents, including the library director, echoed Strasburger’s concerns.

Discussion by councilors was limited. However, Chairwoman Joanne King indicated that she hoped the fiscal crisis would yield some concessions from the teachers union.

The School Board will negotiate with the teachers union, but the council must authorize the School Department’s budget before it goes to voters for final ratification.

“We’ve given some indications that the negotiations are to be based on the reality of today’s economy,” King said.

School Superintendent Paul Perzanoski told the council that administrators have already agreed to forgo raises for the 2010-2011 school year.

“We were very pleased with that announcement,” Perzanoski said. “It sets the tone for the rest of the district.”

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or [email protected]