BRUNSWICK — Speakers at a May 11 public hearing on the proposed 2018 municipal budget rallied to avoid $500,000 in additional cuts to school spending amid opposing pleas that taxpayers couldn’t afford it.
At a May 17 meeting six days later, the School Board decided on a compromise and voted 5-3 to send the Town Council a propsal to cut only $250,000 – or half of the amount requested by the town manager.
Accounting for over half of the town’s annual spending, the school budget was the fulcrum of debate at the May 11 hearing, where the public united over one thing: criticism of Augusta.
Many who spoke claimed that Gov. Paul LePage’s policies have exacerbated local divisions and turned towns like Brunswick into “a room of starving rats,” according to one Page Street resident.
As proposed, the $63 million municipal budget would raise the tax rate by 5 percent – a hike that Town Manager John Elridge said he wanted to reduce to 3 percent.
To do that, he recommended shaving an additional $500,000 from school spending and $300,000 from the municipal side.
Before the public hearing got underway, Superintendent Paul Perzanoski introduced the school’s proposal by acknowledging the state’s role in the process.
“The burden of financing public education has been unequally placed on the backs of our local taxpayers,” he told the room of about 40 people.
The proposed $38 million school budget assumes a “worst-case scenario,” in board member Ben Tucker’s words, where Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget passes without input from the Legislature and results in a $1 million shortage in state reimbursement.
Perzanoski said this was the first time the School Board has had to create a budget based on an unknown state subsidy.
But because it is unlikely the Legislature will make LePage’s budget law without major modifications, the town will likely reclaim some of the lost reimbursement, he said – although only after Brunswick holds its school budget validations referendum June 13.
Elridge suggested the Town Council create a warrant article that would use the restored money to reinstate the second round of school cuts, with any remaining funds going to tax relief.
Seventeen residents spoke in response to the budget, with the majority in favor of funding the school budget as proposed.
Not that school critics were totally quiet. Some, like Lincoln Street’s Richard Fisco, hurled harsh criticisms against the schools – so harsh that at least two speakers reflected on how polarized the town has become over school spending.
But a common theme soon united the two factions.
“We’re blaming the wrong people,” Maine Street’s Mary Donnelly said, explaining that residents are prone to blaming the Town Council for tax increases when “we need more help from state and federal monies.”
“Unfortunately, you guys are left holding the bag here,” Longfellow Street resident Vladimir Douhovnikoff agreed, elaborating that the Town Council is often left without a choice but to increase taxes in the absence of state aid.
Donnelly and Douhovnikoff both spoke in support of the school budget.
Terril Hunter, of Dionne Circle, did not. She asked the council “to really sharpen your pencils” when they go to trim the budget.
“(A) 5 percent (increase) is unacceptable. Three percent is unacceptable,” she said, describing how the property taxes on her “modest ranch” have risen to a point where she and her husband are paying a burdensome $5,000 a year in property taxes.
She also urged officials and the public “to advocate at the state level” for more support of local municipalities.
The School Board’s initial budget recommendation included $800,000 in cuts that eliminated a handful of positions, the purchase of a new school bus, and some routine maintenance.
At the board’s May 17 meeting, Ben Tucker moved to adopt another slate of cuts – totaling $500,000, at Town Manager John Elridge’s request – that would keep the slashed items in the budget, but left unfunded.
“I would not support this kind of budget if I did not think we would get additional money from the state,” Tucker said.
The motion failed in a 4-4 tie, with Chairwoman Joy Prescott absent.
Billy Thompson quickly proposed a compromise to split the $500,000 reduction between the school’s operating budget and the town’s reserve fund.
The bulk of his proposed $250,000 reduction would cut positions for a curriculum coordinator, a part-time music teacher, and a special education secretary.
Several members of the public, as well as board members Sarah Singer and Elizabeth Sokoloff, advocated using money from the town’s rainy day fund.
“It’s raining,” Singer said, echoing almost verbatim a member of the public, Dana Bateman, who spoke at the May 11 hearing.
Thompson’s motion passed 5-3, with board members Teresa Gillis, Jim Grant, and Elizabeth Sokoloff opposed.
Grant had supported Tucker’s original motion, where Gillis and Sokoloff objected to any further cuts at all.
The Town Council will vote on the final budget May 25, when they will have the ultimate say in whether to supplement the school’s operating budget with reserve funds.
They will also decide how to allocate any additional state subsidies which, state statute stipulates, they can use to restore cuts to the school budget, or tax relief.
Brunswick Town Council Chairwoman Alison Harris and Town Manager John Elridge at a May 11 public hearing on the proposed $63 million municipal budget. The majority of the 17 people that spoke defended the school department’s recommended budget, and criticized the state government for worsening local tensions around climbing property taxes.