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.
  • Chew H Bird

    There is absolutely no reason for a 4.5 percent increase in salaries and wages when the rest of the Brunswick’s economic economy is struggling. A quick look at the barren malls around Cooks Corner, and the money losing Downeaster, is all that is needed to confirm Brunswick’s failure to provide the basis for an economically viable community. We have a highly regarded college in our community with an enormous endowment and well compensated faculty, wonderful restaurants, and good looking Maine Street. However we spend time and resources putting speed bumps on Maine Street (while removing parking spaces), building a (very much needed) Police Station in an area that is expensive and difficult to expand, and implement a new tax assessment using digital technology that has no promise of confidentiality (privately stored data shared with multiple companies).

    Brunswick needs someone with ability to re-negotiate paying higher wages to our education employees (even though they are good people and probably deserving of it) because the rest of us are not doing so well (partly because of our town’s poor track record of decision making).

  • farmertom2

    Here’s an idea– Reduce the number of police and put more resources into the schools, including decent pay for the teachers and staff. Brunswick has far more police than a town of 20,000 people requires.
    As for the malls, a shifting economy means that there is less demand for bricks and mortar stores, and the mall management has been lackadaisical in getting new tenants. Lower rent and more flexible leasing terms might make the empty spaces more attractive to would be occupants.
    As for the Downeaster, it has nowt to do with the school budget.
    Building the town, improving the schools, making things work better– these are the things that will attract more residents and more businesses to Brunswick. Austerity is nothing but a downward spiral to failure and squalor.

    • Scott Harriman

      “Earlier in the month, Police Chief Richard Rizzo made a presentation to the council showing that Brunswick has fewer full-time officers than comparable towns. Saco, Scarborough and Augusta, all smaller than Brunswick in population, have more officers than Brunswick does.

      Meanwhile, calls for service were up more than 4,000 from 2014, Rizzo said.

      The result is an increased reliance on overtime, Rizzo said, such as staffing extra patrols after a rape reported last Nov. 10 at a Bowdoin College off-campus dorm.”

      • farmertom2

        Perhaps our numbers are down already. Last I checked, there were forty. If there are fewer, then good. Police Chiefs always want more of everything. Which is why we have a Police Palace.

        • Chew H Bird

          A major problem with staffing when specialized skills are required is on any day at any time a situation may occur that requires additional help. Trained Police Officers do not grow on trees and are not typically found on general employment websites. Police work as a team and training is a long term, expensive, and important investment in our town.

          As for the new Police Station, the only real error I see is the location due to the projected expense of expansion in the future. The old building had been outgrown more than a decade prior to the new one being constructed (in a past life I provided some services to the Brunswick PD and know for a fact the old building was a disaster in many regards).

          My real question is whether it is economically better to pay overtime (with the caveat of officers being tired and over worked), vs. long term retirement benefits fro additional personnel (whether retirement be funded by the state or the town the funds ultimately come from the taxpayers).