Brunswick council, School Board find common ground on budget

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BRUNSWICK — The School Department’s proposed budget received a positive reaction this week from the Town Council.

In April, Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski told the School Board that he had been advised by Town Manager John Eldridge to cut $750,000 from the nearly $37 million school budget.  Perzanoski said the town manager had arrived at that number based on conversations with councilors.

But the board chose not to make the full cut. It passed a $36.5 million budget on April 29, representing a $400,000 reduction from the original budget. Some board members criticized the size of the council’s request, with one board member calling the cuts “a disservice to the kids.”

But the mood was positive at Monday night’s council budget workshop.

Perzanoski told the council that he had been looking forward to presenting the budget to councilors. “I spent most of the weekend figuring out why that was,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure it out.”

The budget as proposed represents a 2.3 percent increase over this year’s spending, and would require a $1.1 million appropriation from the town.

Councilors expressed appreciation for the work by the School Department and board, if not a full endorsement of the budget presented.

“I appreciate the tone you came here with tonight,” Councilor John Richardson said.

Councilor Kathy Wilson said she had adjusted her opinion to some degree on the school budget after the superintendent’s presentation. “But it (still) sounds different than it reads,” she said. “I just want to remind you we’ve taken huge hits … and it’s going to be tough.”

Councilor John Perreault addressed some of the comments made about the town manager’s budget request at School Board meetings.

“You asked after last year’s meeting for direction beforehand,” he said. “Despite some School Board members chastising (Eldridge) … I commend him for doing what he was asked.”

School Board member Chris McCarthy acknowledged he had been “quite vocal” about his dissatisfaction. But that was for “how the School Board budget gets to the people of Brunswick” in general, he said, and not intended as a personal attack.

At the end of his budget presentation, Perzanoski proposed an idea for constructing a five-year financial plan with the town.

He asked that the council and School Board allow the town manager and superintendent to research economic trends and develop a long-term financial plan for school funding.

“This process should be more known and more positive for all of us,” he said. “We cannot continue a process that results in a negative experience overall for the community and public officials.”

Richardson said Perzanoski’s proposal made “all the sense in the world.”

“I don’t see any other way forward, other than working more closely together,” he said.

Part of the unity Monday night was found in a shared frustration with reduced school and municipal aid from the state.

Perzanoski noted that since 2008, the School Department has lost $4.3 million of state assistance. The loss was compounded by declining enrollment after the closing of the Brunswick Naval Air Station and the 2008 recession, he said.

He acknowledged the town has also lost more than $1 million in aid from cuts to the state revenue sharing program. Perzanoski and councilors agreed on the result: an increased financial burden shouldered by town taxpayers.

“It’s almost as if the community has gone through the stages of grief,” Perzanoski said. “And now we’re finally coming out saying this has happened to us, and what are we going to do about it.”

State Rep. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, also spoke at the meeting, to “apologize” for the cuts to state funding.

“You guys don’t hear that enough about what the state is putting you through,” she said. “We are not holding up our end of the bargain.”

After the meeting, Daughtry said she agreed “100 percent” with the sentiment that taxpayers are carrying an unfair burden. She said most of the blame could be placed on Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget, but that there’s been a “long pattern of not funding schools.”

This year, Brunswick schools will receive $9.8 million in general purpose aid from the state, which is more than $100,000 less than last year.

She said that outside an overhaul of the tax code, she does not see significant relief coming for municipalities and public schools.

Dana Bateman, of Franklin Street, said as a parent she has noticed the loss of state funding in Brunswick’s public schools.

“Each year, the part of (my kids’) experience that’s different correlates with cuts in state revenue sharing,” she said. She cited the loss of a new math curriculum, favorite teachers being laid off, and the remaining staff “running from duty to duty” to shoulder the increased responsibility.

“The local level is doing the best they can, but the state environment has really been devastating,” Bateman said.

Yet even with a more united effort between the schools and town, there’s no guarantee the proposed budget will pass the council untouched.

“When the rubber meets the road in a tough budget year … I’d like to see respect for competing needs,” Councilor Suzan Wilson said.

Wednesday night, the School Board took its first action on the proposed budget: it eliminated an elementary reading strategist, a technology integrator and a reading/math support position.

“This is moved with great regret,” board member James Grant said. 

There will be a public hearing on the municipal budget on May 14, and the budget and CIP will be adopted on May 28. The school budget referendum is on June 9.

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

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.