Brunswick School Board meets council halfway on budget cuts

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BRUNSWICK — The School Board approved a $36.5 million budget Wednesday night, choosing not to make cuts requested by the Town Council.

At the previous board meeting, Superintendent Paul Perzanoski presented a request, made to him in a conversation with Town Manager John Eldridge, to cut $750,000 from the proposed budget.

The fiscal year 2016 budget passed Wednesday includes about a $400,000 reduction from the original budget, resulting in a 2.3 percent increase over this year’s spending.

In a meeting Tuesday night before the vote, Perzanoski presented cuts that would have amounted to about $750,000.

But some of the superintendent’s proposed cuts were unacceptable to the board.

One of the biggest savings proposed by Perzanoski was to not replace Assistant Superintendent Gregory Bartlett when he departs this year. The School Department would contract with Bartlett for some ongoing projects, with the remaining responsibilities being delegated to the rest of the central office staff.

But board members wouldn’t go along.

“There’s a point where too few staff burdens all the staff,” member Brenda Clough said.

“I believe it’s not in the best interest of the district to not fill the assistant superintendent position,” member Chris McCarthy added.

Board member Rich Ellis cited figures from the Maine Department of Education, saying that out of a list of 14 school districts in the region, Brunswick has the 10th-lowest system administration costs per pupil.

“We are not spending richly on central office staff,” he said.

Several board members expressed concern that the presented cuts were based on meeting the council’s request, and not on educational merit.

“I know the Town Council, through the town manager, asked you to cut this amount of money,” Clough said, “… but the dollar amount we are trying to reach, I’m uncomfortable with.”

“To sit now and say we have to slice deep into this in a budget already well below inflationary factors … I just can’t get behind it,” McCarthy said.

Other proposed cuts opposed by the board were leaving a grade-eight language arts position unfilled at the junior high school, and reorganizing two special education programs into one, resulting in one less special education teacher.

Clough expressed concern that in making those cuts, the board would be “dismantling student support services we have been trying to build up over the past several years.”

The School Department has lost a total of 97 positions since 2010, according to figures provided by Perzanoski.

Several members of the public spoke in support of the board and its spending plan.

“What brought me here tonight was request for a cut of $750,000,” said Michele Joyce, a former School Board member. “I disagree with the cut of the assistant superintendent. I fear it won’t get filled in the future.”

Dana Bateman, of Franklin Street, urged the board to “put the vulnerable group front and center.” She said the number of students qualifying for free and reduced lunches has increased 14 percent since 2006.

“We need as a board to put forth a budget that we think will support a good education for all the kids in the schools,” Clough said.

Perzanoski, meanwhile, said he was “really getting upset.”

“I appreciate all the support you’re giving us tonight, but it’s all in vain,” he said. “We can’t bank on the fact that because we think (the budget) is appropriate, (the council) will. There are councilors saying they want a zero budget (increase) … There’s no support that I see going forward.”

Board member Sarah Singer agreed, saying that it’s “not in our best interests to not put forward cuts to the town … we don’t want to seem aloof or reckless to the fiscal situation of town.”

“We have a responsibility to try to meet the town,” Chairman William Thompson said. “We need to have good-faith effort put forward to show our willingness to work with them.”

But finding consensus on cuts proved difficult.

“Apparently … our bottom-up budget is inappropriate,” McCarthy said.

“The budget prior to (cuts) constitutes a maintenance budget,” he said. “I think we should put it to the people of Brunswick to decide.”

The cuts approved Wednesday include a proposed update to the office at Coffin Elementary School, reduced food service contingency costs, a reading strategist position, a tech integrator position and safety equipment updates to the department’s bus fleet. The assistant superintendent, special education and literacy support positions survived.

The board approved the budget by a vote of 6-1, with McCarthy opposed. Board members Corinne Perreault and Janet Connors were absent.

“We’re carving the beast in a way we should not,” McCarthy said. “We as a board have gone too far and we are doing a disservice to the kids.”

Thompson called the budget a “thoughtful proposal,” and expressed hope the council would see it that way.

Perzanoski, however, was not optimistic.

“I’ve asked what kind of school system does the town of Brunswick want to have,” he said Tuesday. “The answer I’ve gotten is, one we don’t want to have to pay that much for.”

After Wednesday’s vote, when asked how he thought the budget would go over with the council, he had three words.

“Not very well.”

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or at Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.