Brunswick council cuts school budget; board member fires back

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BRUNSWICK — The Town Council on Monday cut the School Department budget by another $85,000.

One School Board member called the move a breach of the council’s authority.

The council previously asked the School Board to cut $410,000 from its nearly $38 million fiscal year 2017 budget. The board met that request by reducing money slated for reserve accounts, and carrying over unspent funds from the current year.

It did not touch a proposed $85,000 high school paving project councilors criticized at a May 2 meeting.

Two weeks later, some councilors made it clear they wanted to see the project disappear.

“The School Department still has $85,000 in their budget to pave the parking lot and/or the driveway at the high school,” Councilor Jane Millett said at the Town Council meeting May 16. “The municipal budget has cut $60,000 of paving to meet our goal.”

Millett said she looked at the parking area in question and, in her opinion, “it is not nearly in as poor shape as some roads leading to the high school.”

Therefore, she argued, to uphold equal “community standards,” the council should take the $85,000 estimated for the project from the school budget, and use it to reduce the tax rate.

“While I fully recognize the Town Council cannot dictate to the School Board what to spend money on … we can look at the whole picture and reduce their allotment based on common sense,” she concluded.

Several councilors agreed with Millett.

Councilor Kathy Wilson said she felt “hoodwinked,” apparently by how quickly, and seemingly easily, the School Board reduced its budget.

Council Chairwoman Sarah Brayman echoed Wilson, saying she was “shocked that I arrived at the School Board meeting six minutes late, and they were just about to vote on taking out $410,000 from their budget.”

Councilors voted 6-2 to cut $85,000 from the school budget, with Councilors John Perreault and David Watson opposed. Watson said he felt the decision would be “reducing our integrity;” Perreault said the board had “done its due diligence to reach the (budget) target.”

School Board member Rich Ellis, watching the meeting on television, immediately took to social media to express his frustration.

“Until tonight’s vote, there was a clearly defined line in the annual budget process, supported by state statute and general practice, that the Town Council does not have line item authority over how the school spends its budget,” he wrote on Facebook.

“Tonight six councilors clearly crossed that line,” he added.

Ellis said he would actively oppose the changes, both in support of the targeted project and on the principle that the council did not have authority to make the cut.

After Monday’s meeting, Brayman affirmed that the council does not have line-item authority over the school budget. But she said it can reduce the total amount of the School Board-approved budget.

Removal of the $85,000 brings the proposed property tax hike, currently 3.5 percent, down a quarter of a percent, according to Town Manager John Eldridge.

On Wednesday, School Board member Sarah Singer said she was not “mad” at councilors about the vote, but “frustrated by the process.”

She said considering the loss of state aid through school subsidies and municipal revenue sharing, the burden of maintaining public facilities is falling more and more on property taxpayers.

“This is the inevitable consequence of diminishing resources,” she said. “We’re all squabbling for what’s left.”

“I want to find a positive solution for these problems,” she said.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski declined to suggest where in the budget the $85,000 would be subtracted, without first getting feedback from the full board.

The School Board is scheduled to have a special meeting May 25 at 6:30 p.m.

The council is scheduled to formally adopt the budget and Capital Improvement Plan May 26 at 7 p.m.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Brunswick School Board member Rich Ellis.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.
  • Chew H Bird

    Without knowing any details except for arguing about money I can only comment that I doubt any of our current council members actually understand the engineering of pavement. I spent more than a decade in heavy construction and what a person can see and how it appears superficially often had absolutely nothing to do with the structural integrity or long term viability or a roadway or parking lot.

    While the Council may be correct in their assumption, it is most likely an “assumption” without any real data to substantiate their opinion. I often question spending on many items, especially when they seem wanted rather than needed, but maintenance of a facility often requires a professional opinion in order to to hold water.

    I have plenty of questions about the school budget and the cutting of 400k with the blink of any eye is the tip of the iceberg, but having our town counsil mirroring the same level of decision making is hardly in the best interest of our town.

    • AverageJoe99

      Mr. (?) Bird is 100% correct about paving. It is often more cost effective to fix deteriorating paving before it gets worse and costs more to restore.
      But that’s not the problem. In addition to ignorance regarding paving, the Council is ignoring the mandated separation of powers between the governing bodies. Rich Ellis is absolutely correct in his statements. The School Board should stand firm and take the matter to court, if need be. It should be a slam-dunk win for them.