Brunswick School Board members vow to oppose budget if council stands by cuts

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BRUNSWICK — The School Board Wednesday night rejected the Town Council’s mandate for additional cuts to the fiscal year 2017 budget.

Two board members went even farther, promising to publicly oppose passage of next month’s school budget referendum unless the council restores the most recent reduction of $85,000.

“I will advocate publicly to reject the school budget and send it back to (the council) again,” board member Rich Ellis said after the meeting.

“I couldn’t agree more,” board member Corinne Perreault said. “I refuse any additional reduction.”

The council originally asked the school board trim about $410,000 from its nearly $38 million budget. The board complied with that request, cutting money slated for reserves and carrying over current-year revenues.

But some councilors thought those cuts did not go far enough. Council Chairwoman Sarah Brayman said she was “shocked” by how easily the board cut its budget; Councilor Kathy Wilson said she felt “hoodwinked.”

Councilor Jane Millett spearheaded the move May 16 to cut the additional $85,000, earmarked for a proposed paving project at Brunswick High School. Millet said the pavement “is not nearly in as poor shape as some roads leading to the high school,” and that the town and school should uphold equal “community standards.”

Soon after the council voted 6-2 for the cut, Ellis responded on his Facebook page.

“There was a clearly defined line … that the Town Council does not have line item authority over how the school spends its budget,” he wrote. “Tonight six councilors clearly crossed that line.”

Ellis’s sentiment was widely shared at Wednesday’s meeting.

School Board member Brenda Clough said although councilors say they want a “collaborative” process with the board, “collaborative does not mean the council saying … ‘this is what we want.'”

Board member Jim Grant called the council’s move “distasteful.”

Trying to take a step back from the feud, board member Sarah Singer said the real blame lies with the state and years of declining school subsidies.

“We are in an austerity climate … and we are trying to keep our schools intact,” she said. With less money coming in from the state, she argued, the town has to raise property taxes to maintain services.

“(It’s) shifting the costs to poorer residents,” she said. “It drives me bonkers.”

The board voted 8-1, with Singer opposed, to maintain its proposed budget of $37.7 million, rejecting the council’s $85,000 reduction.

Superintendent Paul Perzanoski said after the meeting that the vote was largely symbolic. The council is scheduled to authorize the town, school, and county budgets Thursday night, May 26, and councilors have the authority to set whatever cap they want on school spending.

But Ellis and Perreault warned there would be consequences if the council maintains the $85,000 cut.

“The school budget usually passes (70 percent to 30 percent),” Ellis said. “It takes maybe 100 people to swing … and the vote doesn’t pass.”

Last year, the school budget referendum was approved 779-490.

“This is about the principle of the process,” Ellis said. The council’s vote, targeted at one project, “is a precedent-breaking standard,” he added.

He said if the council stands by the cut, he would tell his constituents to reject the school budget at the June 14 referendum.

Perreault agreed. “There are a large number of people who are not pleased with the way this (process) went,” she said.

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

Brunswick School Board members Corinne Perreault, left, and Rich Ellis.

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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.