Cape Elizabeth council cuts school budget proposal

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CAPE ELIZABETH — In a rare exercise of their veto authority, town councilors on Monday rejected the budget proposed by the School Board and reduced it by more than $110,000.

The Town Council finance committee, comprised of the entire council, said it wants no spending increase in fiscal 2016.

“I understand how important the schools are, but I wanted to present a fair budget,” Councilor Jim Walsh, chairman of the finance committee, said.

The School Board on April 14 approved a $23.6 million budget, an increase of 1.8 percent from this year. The spending proposal would require a tax increase of seven cents, or a $22 annual property tax increase for home with a value of $314,000.

The School Board budget has already been reduced from the original February proposal of $23.8 million by Superintendent Meredith Nadeau. That change came from a decrease in health-care premiums and from the elimination of a proposed preschool program.

Walsh said this year the School Department retired a bond of $496,000 and received an increase in state subsidiary of just over $447,000. Combined with the $143,000 in health-care savings, he said there was no need for a budget increase.

“When you add that up you have well over a $1 million swing,” Walsh said. “We decided they needed to be coming in at a zero percent increase.”

Councilor Jessica Sullivan agreed, saying while the board’s proposed increase of 1.8 percent isn’t large, it’s unnecessary. 

“My objection was that they have actually gotten a windfall of over $1 million, so I didn’t think they needed any increase,” she said.

Both councilors also cited declining enrollment as a reason not to increase the budget.

Council Chairwoman Kathy Ray said there are no particular cuts the finance committee wants made, and it is not the councilors’ job to make those decisions. 

“We don’t have jurisdiction over line items,” she said. “We can only talk about the bottom line.”

Councilors voted 5-1, with Councilor Caitlin Jordan opposed and Councilor Jamie Wagner absent, to approve the change and send it a public hearing. The hearing will be held May 11; councilors may also vote on it then before sending it to a public budget referendum on June 9.

Walsh said he wouldn’t have been able to send the budget to voters as it was.

“There was a huge shift in the dollars this year, and when that happens, we couldn’t send that to voters,” he said.

Sullivan agreed, saying she couldn’t have sent the budget to voters “in good conscience.” 

Walsh and Sullivan said the Town Council has rarely cut the School Board’s request, but that it needed to be done. They both said it has been a long time since this last happened.

“I don’t think this has happened for, I’m guessing, for seven or eight years, but it has happened in the past,” Sullivan said. 

The School Board has scheduled a meeting for May 4 to discuss where to make cuts in order to reach the finance committee’s number. A press release from the board said options include reducing expenditures or increasing revenues and fees.

In the press release, School Board Chairman Joanna Morrissey said the finance committee’s decision was unfortunate and there is now a lot of work for the board to do.

“The zero percent School Department tax rate cap mandate from the Town Council will require the School Board to make some very difficult decisions,” Morrissey said. “The School Board will make every effort to minimize the impact of these requested cuts on students and staff.” 

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.