Cape Elizabeth school budget nixes facility study

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CAPE ELIZABETH — Voters on June 12 will decide whether to validate a $25.4 million school budget.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Cape Elizabeth High School.

The School Board decided not to include a facility study in the fiscal year 2019 spending plan after the Town Council adopted a budget that is $249,000 less than what the board requested.

If approved by voters, the budget would increase the school’s portion of the tax rate by 9.6 percent, rather than 10.2 percent as initially proposed. Even with the cut, the budget is an increase of approximately $515,000 from current spending. 

The $39.5 million combined town, school and county budget poses a 6.6 percent increase to taxpayers, up $1.19 to $19.19 from this year’s $18 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

The town also expected to send voters a referendum question on whether to spend $1.3 million to replace a Fire Department ladder truck, since all town expenses over $1 million must receive voter approval. But Town Manager Matt Sturgis said on May 30 that the estimated cost was revised to $990,000 and therefore would not have to go to a vote.

Sturgis said the initial estimate was based on what South Portland spent on a truck, but with more research, Chief Peter Gleeson found less expensive trucks would meet the department’s needs. 

Sturgis said the truck, as well as other large capital expenses, including a dump/plow truck and 15-year-old ambulance, would be purchased through a five-year lease-purchase agreement.

During a workshop on May 22, the School Board asked interim Superintendent Howard Colter to look into whether the facility study could still be budgeted by either cutting other planned capital improvements or asking for a reduced price.

However, Colter said in a May 23 email that he would not recommend either. 

“Each project identified last winter … is necessary to be addressed prior to next school year,” he said.

This, Colter said, does not necessarily mean some type of study won’t happen during the 2018-19 school year, but it will not be budgeted.

“I would like to keep the door open to the possibility of taking a step or two forward this coming year regarding a serious study of our school buildings,” he said. “To just shelve this study for another 12 months seems irresponsible to me. I have confidence that the school board will do all it can to keep this study alive.”

Board Chairwoman Susana Measelle Hubbs said on May 22 that “unfortunately” there was no “fat in the budget to be trimmed” that could fund the study. 

Other board members also expressed their disappointment that the cut was made, saying the first step to “urgent” school improvements is the study. 

Board member John Voltz said that for the past several years, the board has presented slight increases in its budget proposals while receiving large cuts in state aid.

“We’ve been putting off really important things until later,” he said. “… A look at our facilities is really, really important.”

Some flaws in the district’s facilities that the study would address, board member Hope Straw said, are so pressing that they’re harming kids, such as the combined cafeteria and auditorium, or “cafetorium,” at Pond Cove Elementary School and Cape Elizabeth Middle School.

The cafetorium serves both schools, with five, 20- to 25-minute consecutive lunchtimes starting at 10:45 a.m. This only leaves kitchen staff five minutes between each lunch to clean and reset before the next group of students arrive.

“We have kids who probably haven’t eaten a healthy lunch in six years, because there wasn’t time to actually sit down and eat what’s in their lunch box,” Straw said. 

She added that she wished the board could get back line items they cut while crafting the budget in order to make room for the facility study, such as $50,000 worth of supplies at Pond Cove Elementary School or funding to improve the elementary school’s playground.

Along with the vote on the school budget, the June 12 ballot will include a non-binding question on whether the budget proposal is too high, acceptable or too low.

The question is intended to advise the Town Council and School Board in case voters reject the budget and a second referendum is required.

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

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