Brunswick school budget trends cause for concern?

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BRUNSWICK — School Board member Rich Ellis likes numbers.

Recently, he was trying to figure out a way to show town councilors how challenging it was to create this year’s school budget, and the extent of proposed cuts in programming and services.

What he came up with, a series of tables and graphs that he presented to the Town Council on Monday, does more than that. It illustrates how aspects of this year’s school budget cuts contradict the town’s Comprehensive Plan, demonstrates the decline in state spending on public education, and shows how Brunswick’s municipal spending has outpaced spending for education.

Comprehensive Plan

The Comprehensive Plan, completed in 2008, specifically identifies summer Math and Literacy Camp – which was cut from the 2011-2012 school budget – as a way to make sure all existing educational programming meets or exceeds state requirements, and supports students at all academic levels in the school system, according to the plan.

The plan also identified ensuring that class sizes are “appropriate for the grade level” and implementing all programs offered in similar-sized and surrounding communities as other ways to meet this objective.

While Ellis said he recognizes the plan does not necessarily influence town policy, he pointed out “the irony that one of the things we had to cut was specifically referenced in the Comprehensive Plan.”

Ellis was also concerned that the town is not investing as heavily in education as recommended in the plan. In the past five years, Brunswick’s local contribution to the school budget has decreased to point where it is within $300,000 of the state-mandated minimum.

In 2006, the state required Brunswick to contribute at least $11.9 million to public education, according to state Department of Education statistics. The Town Council allocated more than $14.8 million that year, 25 percent more than the minimum contribution.

In fiscal 2012, if the town kicks in the $16.75 million the School Board is requesting, the local contribution will only be 1.8 percent more than the state’s minimum of almost $16.5 million.

According to DOE spokesman David Connerty-Marin, most school districts have historically spent more on education than the state-mandated minimum local contribution. In the past couple of years, however, he said local contributions  have declined statewide. He said the decrease in Brunswick’s local contribution is  “a greater reduction than in most places, but it’s a reflection of the reality of the finances.”

For Ellis, the downward trend is distressing.

“The trend I’m seeing … is not good,” he said Monday. “Are we funding our schools as much as we did?”

State contribution

At the same time, nearly every year since 2006 the state has paid a smaller percentage of Brunswick’s Essential Programs and Services allocation, which Connerty-Marin defined as “a no-frills, but adequate funding formula” that estimates what education in each district should cost.

In the 2006-2007 year, DOE paid 56.7 of Brunswick’s allocation. But in the proposed school budget, that share dropped to 42.8 percent.

According to Connerty-Marin, the average percent of EPS allocations paid by the state has been dropping since 2008-2009, when it peaked at 53 percent. Last year the average was 48 percent, placing Brunswick slightly below the statewide average.

Municipal spending gap

Not only has the state been spending less on education in Brunswick, but Ellis said Brunswick’s school budget hasn’t kept up with increases in its municipal spending.

He said that between the 2005-2006 and 2010-2011 school years, the net amount of property taxes that went toward the municipal budget increased by 15.5 percent, but it only increased 4.5 percent for the school budget.

Town Manager Gary Brown could not verify the amount of the municipal budget from 2005-2006; the last verifiable number is from 2007-2008, and the increase in municipal spending since then has been 13.5 percent, compared to a 10 percent increase in the school budget – less dramatic than the earlier comparison.

Either way, Brown is wary of Ellis’ conclusion.

He said it would make sense for the school budget not to have increased as much as the municipal budget due to the loss of more than 700 students from Durham (now part of Regional School Unit 5) and Brunswick Naval Air Station. He said the closing of the base, on the other hand, has not reduced the types of services the town provides.

“(The town is) not experiencing a reduction of the services we need to provide … on the contrary, we need to increase our services,” he said.

Ellis said he was not trying to suggest that “our municipal spending is out of hand,” but rather, to place increases in education spending in context of municipal spending. He said he also hoped to persuade the council not to ask for further cuts from the school budget.

“We need to be sure that the school system we’re building today attracts people into the system,” he said.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.

Sidebar Elements

Many councilors ready to OK spending plan

BRUNSWICK — School Board members and residents on Monday urged the Town Council not to make further cuts in the proposed $33.3 million school budget.

While some councilors indicated they thought further reductions are possible, particularly in administrative staffing, others said they would accept the school budget as presented.

“I find it hard to believe that there’s some additional fat sitting here to be cut,” Councilor Benet Pols said. “I support the school budget right where it is.”

Still, he questioned the number of administrative positions at the high school next year, compared with the town’s elementary and junior high schools. The high school has a principal, two assistant principals and an athletic director. The junior high school has one principal and an assistant principal, and the two elementary schools have one principal each.

Councilor Suzan Wilson wondered why there are 2.5 secretaries working for the superintendent and assistant superintendent, and encouraged the School Department to “do a little better” in their administrative staffing levels.

In an interview, Superintendent Paul Perzanoski explained that, in addition to serving as administrative assistants to him, the assistant superintendent and the business manager, a significant portion of what the secretaries do is handle personnel matters. He noted the town has a human resources director, whose entire job is devoted to personnel.

He also pointed out that one elementary school principal and a special education coordinator are being cut in next year’s budget. At the high school, he explained, more administrators are needed because of the extra programming and sports events. He also said that assistant high school principals are necessary because the school has more discipline issues.

Other councilors expressed concern about the proposal to put 372 children into Coffin Elementary School and 636 into the Harriet Beecher Stowe school. Neither building has an empty classroom to spare, meaning that any increase in student population will increase class sizes.

Class sizes are already increasing from an average of 15.3 students in kindergarten through second grade, according to the most recent enrollment figures supplied by the School Department, to 19.4 students because of the temporary closing of Jordan Acres Elementary School.

Most councilors, though, seemed ready to accept the school budget as presented.

“I think the School Board has done a fair and honest job in what they’ve done this year and I would not question the budget myself,” Councilor John Perreault said.

Councilor Margo Knight said she was very impressed with the board’s work. “I just can’t see cutting any more from this,” she said.

Residents will have a chance to comment on the entire town budget on Monday, May 16, at 7 p.m. The council is scheduled to vote on the budget on May 26. The budget validation referendum is on June 7.

— Emily Guerin