BRUNSWICK — After the Town Council rejected a compromise to reduce a cut demanded in the School Board’s budget, the board acquiesced Wednesday night and voted 5-4 to trim its budget by another $250,000.
The compromise, proposed by Billy Thompson at a May 17 meeting, asked the council to split $500,000 in additional cuts with money from the municipal reserves – what many referred to as the town’s “rainy day fund.”
The council is expected to adopt its finalized budget May 25.
For the last month, the council has met weekly to discuss ways to reduce a proposed $63 million budget that would require a 5 percent increase in the tax rate.
In the effort to bring the increase down to at most 3 percent, Town Manager John Eldridge suggested taking another $500,000 from school spending – as well as $300,000 from the municipal side.
The board’s original proposal of a $38 million budget is less than 1 percent more than current spending.
It was designed with an unknown amount of state subsidy and included $800,000 of reductions that would nearly overcome a $1 million shortfall expected as a result of Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed state budget.
Most town officials doubt LePage’s proposal will pass into law without modification by the Legislature, yet the town won’t know how much money it will receive until after the June 13 budget validation referendum.
Thompson’s compromise essentially asked the council to share the assumed risk of unknown reimbursement between the School Department and the town. But at a May 18 meeting, the council decided against using reserve funds.
Councilors agreed they ought to protect the fund balance – which affects the town’s credit rating – in advance of borrowing $28 million to build a new elementary school, if voters approve the school bond June 13.
The council again urged the board to cut the remaining $250,000 – which included a school resource officer at Brunswick Junior High School and a specialist at Coffin Elementary School – with the expectation that the first $400,000 in reclaimed state subsidy would restore those programs.
The next reclaimed $200,000 will go to tax relief, the council proposed; any remaining restored funds would go toward the school’s reserve balance.
Board member Corey Perreault made Wednesday night’s motion to accept the council’s request, which was supported by Chairwoman Joy Prescott, Vice Chairman Jim Grant, Ben Tucker and Thompson.
“I do not approve of it, but I feel like we’re in a situation where we don’t have any choice,” Perreault said.
Prescott agreed, adding in an interview after the meeting that her vote supported the notion that the school system is a department of the town, and the board should consider the direction of the council.
She noted that the board voted to de-fund – not eliminate – the positions in question, meaning the department can restore them without a vote if state money is returned in July.
Board member Teresa Gillis, however, said the night’s vote sent “a defeatist message” to the public, especially within the wider context of LePage’s attempts to slash education across the state.
“(The council) could help us,” she said in an interview after the meeting, regretting the decision not to “invest in our youngest citizens.”
“To me, this is not working together,” she added, pushing back against Prescott’s notion that the board ought to work in partnership with the council.
Brunswick School Board member Teresa Gillis, center, voted against an additional $250,000 in cuts to the school budget Wednesday night. The board ultimately approved the reduction by a 5-4 vote.