Brunswick parents lobby for tax increase to avoid school budget cuts

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BRUNSWICK — Parents and other citizens have been speaking up loudly at Town Council and School Department meetings with an unusual message: raise our taxes.

The altruistic taxpayers are spreading the word as a possible partial fix for the district’s budget woes. Administrators have indicated that offerings from French to physics are threatened by a $3 million budget gap.

“Like everyone else, I’d just as soon not have my taxes raised, but … education is something we can’t afford not to pay for,” said Ed Bradley, one of several citizens who indicated during an April 9 Town Council meeting that they favor paying more in local taxes for the schools.

A separate group of about eight people expressed similar sentiments to the School Board during its April 11 meeting.

“Submit a budget to the Town Council that is not short-sighted,” parent Karen Parker urged. “Don’t cut anything that’s going to impact their ability to graduate, to get good jobs, to go to the college of their choice. Don’t cut teachers don’t cut classes, and don’t cut extracurriculars, and yes, that includes freshman sports.”

School Board members Michelle Small and Rich Ellis said that they have been getting similar messages.

“It’s been a steady stream of emails,” Ellis said.

Peter Footer of Old Bath Road was the only member of the public to express the opposite view at the Town Council meeting.

“I’m certainly not in favor of any tax increases, no matter how bad the schools get,” he said.

Relative budgets

The School Department has had to make deep cuts over recent years, but it is still doing well relative to other districts across the state.

During the 2010-11 fiscal year, the most recent year in a report compiled by the state, Brunswick spent more per student than the state average.

Statewide, districts spent an average of more than $9,600 per student, while in Brunswick each student received nearly $10,900 worth of education.

A breakdown of elementary and secondary students shows that the higher-than-average expenditures are across the board. There were more than 2,400 students in the district for that study period. For districts with between 2,000 and 2,500 students, Brunswick has one of the highest per-student expenditures in the state.

In the years leading up to the national recession, the state average spending per pupil increased slightly, from nearly $9,400 in the 2007 budget to almost $9,700 in the 2009 budget.

Over the same time period, the Brunswick per-student expenditures increased from $9,000 in 2007 to more than $10,600 in 2009.

Jim Oikle, the business manager for the School Department, said on Monday that he doesn’t like to think about the school’s budget in terms of what other districts are doing.

“It’s like looking at what the kid across the aisle has written down for an answer,” he said.

Oikle said he sees the role of the department to put together different options for the public, based on what the public wants.

Savings scramble

School administrators are also scrambling to find new revenues, and new efficiencies as they brace for the impact of the budget gap.

During a school budget workshop held before the April 11 meeting, Paul Austin, director of student services, said the School Department will benefit from a reorganization of staff descriptions.

Superintendent Paul Perzanoski has removed the majority of positions from a federal grant and placed them in the local budget. This could save the School Department about $100,000, as the move shifts some of the burden of retirement contributions from the department to the state.

“A teacher that is paid with local money, we pay nothing to the retirement system because the state of Maine has said they will fund those retirement costs,” Oikle said. “They’ve said, if the federal government is going to buy a teacher, they can pay the retirement costs, so that’s basically why they charge us.”

Oikle also reported that the town will not require payment on debt service on a loan for the Hawthorne School.

“They may eventually forgive it, I don’t know,” Oikle said. “… But next year, they have said we could put zero in there for a principal payment, and zero for an interest payment.”

Food service Director Scott Smith said food costs are projected to go up, but the department is seeking the same $86,000 funding level that it received last year.

“In order to achieve that level funding, I’m going to request an increase of 25 cents for junior high and high school level, and five cents a meal at the elementary school level,” Smith said.

Ellis said the district is also attempting to gain efficiencies by beginning to devise “placeholder budgets” that project costs over three-year and five-year periods.

There will be another school budget workshop on April 25. The School Board will pass a recommendation on April 26.

The school budget will go before the Town Council on May 3.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @hh_matt.