BRUNSWICK — A majority of the residents – and some of their children – who attended Wednesday’s public forum on the proposed $33.3 million school budget spoke out against proposed cuts to staffing and programming.
To avoid a nearly $4 million dollar deficit, the School Department has proposed laying off 39 employees, temporarily closing Jordan Acres Elementary School, and canceling summer math and literacy camp, among other things.
That still leaves a $1 million shortfall the board wants the town to cover.
But if Wednesday’s public forum is any indication, many town residents are hoping the board will reconsider some of those cuts.
One layoff in particular garnered much attention. The proposed elimination of a teacher in the gifted and talented program at Brunswick Junior High School brought 10 speakers to the podium in support of the program.
“I was devastated when I heard the talented program might be cut,” said Anna Callahan, a student at the junior high school who is in program.
She said cutting the program could lead to talented students leaving the school district for private schools or home schooling.
Another junior high school student, Henry Raker, said the program “is the only thing that keeps school tolerable for my friends and I.”
Many adults shared the young people’s concerns.
“I think Brunswick is making a very big mistake to cut the gifted and talented and aim it at the junior high,” Melinda Porter said.
Michelle Dolley said the junior high school gifted and talented program was one of the reasons her family moved to Brunswick. If the program is cut, she said, fewer families may choose the town.
Other speakers also worried about what kind of message the proposed cuts would send to prospective residents.
Jane Millett, a real estate broker, said schools are the primary reason families choose Brunswick. She said education “is the key to the economic vitality of this community,” and without excellent schools, she believes business development efforts downtown and at Brunswick Landing would suffer.
Bob Black, who also said he moved here because of the quality of public education, said passing the proposed budget could be the death knell for not only Brunswick schools’ good reputation, but of the vibrancy of the town itself.
He said the budget “has the feel of a budget that precedes a downward spiral, not only the quality of the schools, but the property values in the town.”
“The word is going to get around (that) the emphasis that Brunswick places on its schools … is less than it used to be,” he said.
Black said he would not be voting for the current iteration of the budget “not because it has the potential to raise my taxes, but because it doesn’t raise them enough.”
Black was one of a handful of speakers who asked the board to request more money from the Town Council, which would raise taxes even more than the 5.9 percent the council has introduced in its preliminary budget.
As the school budget stands now, the School Board is asking the town for $1 million from property tax increases or surplus funds. That figure reflects a drop in state and federal revenue.
The decline comes from a $1.8 million drop in federal impact aid, which the federal government paid the town to educate the children of military families; a nearly $1 million decline in state aid; more than $313,000 less in tuition from Durham students; an increase in debt service for the Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School and the high school, and a 3 percent increase in material and equipment costs.
Peter Flotten said the board should ask the town for another million dollars. He said the proposed cuts to programming and staff would unfairly shove the debt burden from the new elementary school onto the town’s children.
“As adults, we need to suck it up and pay for it, these kids sitting here should not be paying that debt service for us,” he said, to a loud round of applause from the audience.
But others were not so enthusiastic about raising taxes.
Linda Knowles, who also spoke against raising taxes at Monday’s council meeting, encouraged the board to think of “those people out there that are retired, are struggling, too.”
She said if parents can’t get the best education they want in Brunswick, they should send their kids to private schools, or home school.
Several speakers had new suggestions about areas to make further cuts in place of other cuts they objected to.
Porter wondered if the board had considered moving the school administrators out of the Hawthorne School and into another office building.
“Why are we keeping one discrete building afloat for a handful of administrators when there must be space in another building that would keep costs down?” she asked.
Kristi Hatrick encouraged the board to consider making cuts to high school sports, an area that Superintendent Paul Perzanoski noted had not been cut.
“Everything else has been cut. … I’m just wondering if this has been considered, and if this is going to be considered going forward?,” she asked.
School Board Chairwoman Corinne Perreault closed the night by encouraging everyone to show up at council meetings, especially since many of the residents wanted to see more money dedicated to the schools.
The board will vote on the budget Wednesday, May 4. A public budget hearing is scheduled May 16.
The Town Council is scheduled to vote on the budget May 26 and the budget validation referendum is June 14.