Brunswick School Board trims budget, misses council's mark

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BRUNSWICK — The School Board unanimously recommended a slightly reduced, $38.6 million budget Wednesday that fails to hit a target set earlier in the week by the Town Council.

The recommendation was made after the council’s decision Monday not to increase taxes by more than 3 percent in fiscal year 2019.

The board also unanimously voted to name a new $28 million elementary school  Kate Furbish Elementary School, and unanimously approved joining the Greater Sebago Alliance regional service center.

Board members somberly discussed the proposed education budget, and settled on recommending a proposal that would require a 3.07 percent tax increase for the school share of the overall town budget.

The board agreed to reduce its original proposal by more than $240,000, by removing items that will be covered from other funds, including grants, in the operational budget.

Included in the recommended reduction are teaching assistants likely to be covered by Title I grants, as well as funding for an after-school bus, and a portion of the cost of a part-time administrative secretary.

For the town to meet its target of not increasing taxes by more than 3 percent next year, the School Department would have had to cut more than $809,000 from its original proposed budget, and whittle its share of the tax increase to 1.8 percent. 

Before the reductions made Wednesday evening, the FY 2019 budget proposal included a nearly $39 million budget from the School Department, or 60 percent of the overall budget, and a 3.74 percent increase in taxes.

Paired with the more than $24.3 million municipal budget proposal, the total proposed budget, before Wednesday’s revision, would have required a 5.17 tax rate increase.

The Town Council was scheduled to finalize the budget Thursday, May 10, and adopt it May 14, ahead of the annual validation referendum on June 12.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski began his presentation Wednesday by talking about the School Department’s experience during budget talks. He said school officials had heard from speakers at meetings sharing “wrong,” “misused,” and “made-up” information.

He also lamented how the School Board and School Department’s approach to developing a budget had still left it in a difficult position because of Town Council stipulations.

“Despite our organized and systematic approach, a range of spending was decided upon by the council, without the presentation of significant data, or the experience to back it up,” he said. 

Perzanoski’s recommendation was to cut nearly $772,000 from the proposed budget, less than the $809,000 demanded Monday by the Town Council.

The difference in figures is due to $37,000 in state subsidy the department is slated to receive next year for joining a regional service center.

All board members had objections to the recommended cuts, especially eliminating two special education techs, and two staffers who help behaviorally challenged students.

Board member Theresa Gillis said she had “truly heard” all the parts of the discussion.

“I hear that our Brunswick community cannot bear higher taxes, and I hear that our Brunswick children have rising needs that need to be met,” she said. 

She said Brunswick should use some money from its fund balance instead of consistently raising property taxes to help fund education.

“It’s not only the right thing to do, it is also the most fiscally responsible thing to do,” Gillis said. 

Board member Sarah Singer said she found the positions proposed to be cut “alarming.” 

Board member Elizabeth Sokoloff the cuts could be seen as “morally” wrong and fiscally irresponsible in the long term.

“Once they become identified special ed students, we are going pay a lot more for those kids down the road,” she said. “And if we’re not taking care of things early on, and intervening in kindergarten (and) first grade, second grade, we have just bought ourselves 12 years of cost for those kids.”

She added in the past she has sent the Town Council “evidence of peer districts and local towns” setting up “circuit breaker” programs to reduce the impact of tax increases on residents who could not afford them, but had not heard back.

“Why are we not looking into that?” she said. “If property taxes are the reason why our special ed students aren’t gonna get the services they need, then do something, figure it out, don’t hurt our kids.”

New school 

Board members unanimously voted to name the new elementary school on Jordan Avenue Catherine “Kate” Furbish, a 19th-century Brunswick botanist and artist famous for her biologically accurate renderings of flora and fauna. 

Singer said the demolition of the old Jordan Acres School will now be postponed from the beginning of summer until the end, due to “open hazardous materials” that have been exposed in the building, including asbestos.

She said naming the school after Furbish ties in well with its interior design theme featuring trees and plants, and lines up with the plant-based curriculum of the K-2 program.

“It does all seem to meet thematically in a nice way,” she said.

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

School Board member Benjamin Tucker, second from left, addresses the board regarding the Brunswick School Department’s budget proposal on May 9. The board unanimously recommended a $38.6 million budget for the Town Council’s consideration, a 3.07 percent increase in the tax rate.

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