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BRUNSWICK — Voters will be asked to ratify a $33.4 million budget for the School Department on June 9.
The spending plan was adopted by the Town Council on Monday, but must be validated by voters under state law.
The school budget makes up 62 percent of the town’s overall budget of $53.8 million. The council unanimously adopted the entire spending plan on Monday. The budget will maintain the current property tax rate of $22.54 per $1,000 of valuation.
The council also unanimously endorsed the school budget, but three councilors objected to what they described as the council’s 11th-hour mandate to slash $250,000 from the School Department’s original $33.7 million budget. Although the department ultimately cut about $205,000 to meet the council’s directive for a no-tax increase budget, members of the School Board and Superintendent Paul Perzanoski said the cuts came at the expense of the start-up of a highly anticipated preschool program.
The program was scheduled to start next fall. However, according to Perzanoski, funds allocated by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act to plan and start the program were diverted to meet the council’s mandate. Two School Board members spoke against the cut during a May 18 public hearing.
On Monday, Vice Chairman Benet Pols and councilors Ben Tucker and Karen Klatt joined the opposition.
Pols argued that eliminating start-up funds for the program virtually ensured that it wouldn’t come to fruition this year, or for the “next five years.”
“Surely nobody on this council thinks we’re going to have … $250,000 to start-up (the program) in 2010 or 2011,” Pols said. “It happens now, or really, not at all.”
Pols added that two previous councils and this council’s efficiency subcommittee endorsed the preschool program.
Tucker said he was persuaded by Pols’ comments.
“It’s fundamentally unfair for this council, at the 11th hour, to ask for such a large cut in the school budget,” he said.
Councilor Joanne King, however, was unmoved by those arguments, adding that she didn’t appreciate the “allegations” that the council was responsible for axing the program. She also suggested that the School Department is using the popularity of the preschool program to leverage public opinion against difficult budget choices.
“Every time we ask the school committee to cut something, it’s horrible,” she said. “And there always seems to be something thrown into the mix that’s extra horrible.”
King added that it probably isn’t a good time to start a new program, given the district’s declining enrollment and decreases in state and federal funding.
“I don’t like the characterization of this,” she added. “I’d like to see the numbers to validate (the accusations).”
Councilor David Watson joined King in refuting claims that the council’s mandate was a last-minute decision.
“We’ve always done it this way,” he said.
Earlier this year the council told the School Department and town staff to bring back a budget that would combine for no more than a 2 percent tax increase.
The School Department’s original proposal for a budget of $33.7 million would have resulted in an increase of 0.16 percent.
On May 11 a majority of councilors ordered the department and acting Town Manager Gary Brown to make additional cuts to meet a no-tax increase mandate. A week later the School Board delivered its $33.4 million budget.
On June 9, residents will be asked to ratify the school spending plan. Only one polling location will be open: the junior high school on Columbia Avenue. Polls open at 8 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.