Brunswick councilors skeptical about proposed school budget hike

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BRUNSWICK — The School Department’s proposed budget for fiscal 2017 went to the Town Council last week, but it’s likely the nearly $38 million spending plan will be reduced before it is adopted May 26.

The proposed budget is now a 3.6 percent increase over this year’s spending. Combined with the proposed town and county budgets, it would require a 5.25 percent increase in the property tax rate.

“I do not believe this council will support that high a tax increase,” Council Chairwoman Sarah Brayman said after the April 28 meeting.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski said he heard the message loud and clear: “Be as frugal as possible.”

The main drivers of the proposed budget are a nearly 8 percent increase in health insurance costs, a 4.5 percent increase in salaries from negotiated settlements, and new project and staff additions.

A few councilors targeted specific budget additions, an indication of items that may generate further debate in future deliberations.

Councilor Kathy Wilson pressed Perzanoski about the need for a full-time social worker at the junior high and high school, a new position that would require $90,000 in salary and benefits.

“Once we add one new position, it’s not just for this one year,” Wilson said.

“I’m not against the principle of it,” she added, but with the School Department potentially asking voters for $30 million for a new elementary school and repairs to the junior high in November, “somehow, there might be a way to trim where you can.”

Perzanoski, however, defended the decision.

He said that the number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, often considered a proxy for those from economically disadvantaged families, has grown to more than a third of all Brunswick students, up from 22.5 percent in 2007.

There are also 36 homeless students in Brunswick schools, the highest number the School Department has ever seen, the school chief said. In the 2007 school year, there were six.

Perzanoski said a recent audit by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges resulted in a recommendation for the social worker position, and that the request was echoed by staff and students.

“We’d be remiss if we didn’t bring the needs of our students forward,” he said.

Wilson said she felt “terrible even bringing it up … Lord knows I’ve used a social worker in my life.” But she continued to question whether this is a year the schools can afford to add a new position.

The School Department also met resistance on a proposed paving project at the high school.

Facilities Director Paul Caron said the plan for a “skim coat” of paving at the high school is part of a larger 10-year maintenance plan. Asphalt on the property is more than 20 years old, he said, and repairing it now means “avoid(ing) a major bond project” in the future for a complete resurface.

The estimated cost of the project is $85,000.

“I wish we could do that with our (town) roads,” Brayman said. “Our roads are in worse shape than (that) drive.”

Again, Perzanoski defended the addition.

“We’ve heard loud and clear that we need to spend more on facilities and maintenance,” he said, citing recent criticism of the department’s aging facilities by the council and public. “That’s what we’re doing here.”

Town and School Department staff will continue to work on their proposed budgets before a public hearing May 12. Representatives on both sides said the budget presented then will likely be reduced from the one discussed last week.

“(We) understand that  … there are also town needs,” Perzanoski said after the meeting. Without specifying what might be cut, he said the next iteration of the school budget will “probably be smaller.”

Brayman agreed.

“There will be reductions on both sides,” she said.

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.