BRUNSWICK — Coaches and parents stunned by the School Board’s May 12 decision to ax freshman sports vented their frustration to the Town Council on Monday, potentially adding a late hurdle to a budget process that seemed to be in the home stretch.
Until Monday, the majority of the council appeared content to adopt an estimated $52.6 million budget, a spending plan that proponents argue retains essential staff and services while keeping the tax rate increase to about 1.5 percent.
But the majority’s attempt to strike that balance – and achieve some political equilibrium – was thrown off by a $42,000 budget cut that eliminates freshman sports. The resulting outcry prompted concerns that less-organized proponents are also being hurt by the council’s fixation on a minimal tax increase.
The School Board’s 7-1 decision to cut freshman sports from its adopted $32.3 million budget represents 0.001 percent of the entire spending plan and 0.15 percent of the tax rate. However, the cut keeps the department within the 1 percent property tax increase previously mandated by the majority of the council.
Fallout from the cut hit the council on Monday, as parents and coaches blasted a decision that they said was made without warning or consideration of its consequences.
Chairwoman Joanne King originally sought to deflect the criticism, saying comments were better addressed to the School Board, which ultimately decides how to spend the money the council authorizes.
“The bottom line is we give them a bottom line,” King said.
King’s comments frustrated some residents, who said they never had a chance to oppose the School Board’s decision.
“Where did we miss our opportunity to talk about this?” Todd Buchheit said. “… You just took the wind out of our sails. And we came in here on some sweeping winds. This happened fairly quickly. A motion was made, and in the blink of an eye, (freshman sports) was gone.”
Early in the budget process, the council instructed the School Board to build a budget yielding no more than a 1 percent property increase, a task made difficult by an approximately $3 million slash in state education aid.
Although the board’s early budget presentations mentioned the potential of cutting freshman sports, the program was retained in the initial spending plan proposal.
That changed last week, when the district learned it stood to lose additional money in state aid for fiscal 2011.
The board’s decision, which was opposed by member Byron Watson (Jack Jones abstained), centered on its desire to retain resource assistants, who help lagging students with literacy and math – key benchmarks for federally mandated No Child Left Behind testing.
On Monday, some parents objected to the board’s justification, arguing that freshman sports provide some of those same students with an incentive to maintain good grades while providing an anchor for their learning experience.
“It’s been portrayed that this was a choice between education and sports,” Buchheit said. “I can’t think of a greater a misrepresentation of freshmen sports.”
Board member Michelle Small refuted statements by residents – and by King – that the cut wasn’t publicized, citing meeting notices and budget presentations.
But Small’s assertion was countered by Watson, who said eliminating freshmen sports was never seriously considered until last week’s vote on the school budget. Watson, who was ousted as the board’s chairman earlier this year, said he supported revisiting what he described as a hasty decision.
His comments drew applause from the audience.
Later, Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski made an impassioned statement about the larger issues facing the district and public schools in general.
“The reality is the money has to come from somewhere,” he said. “… Despite the fact that we don’t like being accountable to No Child Left Behind, the reality is that we have to be.”
Perzanoski added that 30 percent of Brunswick students were failing to reach benchmarks in the federal program, which means the district needs to provide additional assistance – through resource assistants – or be penalized.
“It’s unfortunate that something had to be cut,” he said. “It’s not about one program being more important than the other. It’s all important.”
Although some councilors appeared ready to add another $42,000 to the School Department’s budget, Councilor Benet Pols warned that responding to an interest group could inevitably come at the cost of interests that aren’t as well organized.
“There’s nobody speaking for (the resource assistants),” Pols said. “The have no advocacy group. We don’t want to lose sight of that.”
Asked later if his office had received calls from parents lobbying on behalf of the resource assistants, Perzanoski said, “Not a single call. (Pols) hit the nail right on the head.”
The issue could potentially reshape the budget, which is scheduled to be adopted by the council on May 27. The council could add $42,000 to the school’s spending plan at that time, but the School Board would likely have to schedule a special meeting to adopt an updated spending plan, according to town and school officials.
Perzanoski said he wasn’t sure if the board was ready to revisit the issue.
“It all depends on how the politics shake out,” he said.
Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org