Cape Elizabeth schools seek 3% spending increase

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CAPE ELIZABETH — Town councilors were greeted Monday by residents waving signs in support of the School Board’s proposed 3.1 percent budget increase.

The council’s May 7 public hearing was held to hear input before the $25.6 million fiscal year 2019 budget proposal is deliberated and put to a council vote May 14.

The approximate spending increase of more than $762,000 would raise the school portion of the town tax rate more than 10 percent. If combined with the proposed $12.4 million municipal budget, residents could expect to see an overall $1.33, or 7.4 percent, increase in the property tax rate, from this year’s $18 to $19.33 per $1,000 of assessed valuation in fiscal year 2019. 

A group calling itself Concerned Residents of Cape Elizabeth stood on the Town Hall lawn prior to the meeting with pro-budget and pro-School Department signs. Residents Lauren Glennon and Sarah Crawford organized the demonstration and circulated a letter that resulted in more than 400 supporting signatures.

“We know the School Board has worked really hard to get this budget down knowing that we are receiving a huge cut in state funding this year, and if this doesn’t get passed then we lose more,” Glennon said. “We’re here to say we love Cape Elizabeth and we support our schools even during a budget crisis.”

Glennon said the group includes parents with young kids who haven’t been able to attend and speak at prior meetings, as well as other town residents.

“I think there’s a lot more support than the Town Council agrees,” Crawford said.  

Inside, it was standing-room-only in council chambers, with some people standing along the walls. About 35 people spoke in favor of the budget during the hearing, representing a range of demographics – parents, those without children, seniors, students, longtime residents and newcomers.

High school freshman Sylvia Crawford said her family moved to town eight years ago for the “excellent school system.”

“Members of the community will be voting on a number that will directly affect my and my peers’ education and gateway to the rest of our lives,” Crawford said. “… Being 15, (I) cannot vote for what I believe in. So, I’m standing here in front of you asking you to vote in favor of the students.”

Resident David Hillman said he supports the budget in the wake of losing $878,000 in state funding for fiscal year 2019.

“Put the blame where it is. It’s not on the schools or the School Board and certainly not on the students … It’s on the state of Maine,” he said. “We’re being forced to make up for their cut.”

Mary Ann Lynch and Anne Carney, candidates for the Democratic Party’s nomination in House District 30, echoed Hillman.

“For the size of the cut … (the School Board) did a great job,” Lynch said. 

Resident William Gross, who volunteers in a high school physics class, however, said he thought the student-to-teacher ratio was too low. His children graduated from CEHS in 1999 and 2002, he said, when the average was 12-to-1. Now, he said, it’s 9-to-1. He proposed eliminating one additional staff position each year for the next 15 years, which he estimated would save $2.5 million.

“I don’t think the problem is caused by the state reducing its funds this year, but rather it’s been building for 15 or 20 years,” Gross said. “… In my opinion, the quality of education the students are receiving today … is not any better than the wonderful education my kids got.”

Another resident, Chuck De Russo, followed by saying he, on the other hand, thinks seven students per teacher would be an improvement.

“I don’t think we want to look backwards … I am retired and I want to take the hit,” he added. “My hierarchy of values is kids first.”

School Board Chairwoman Susana Measelle Hubbs also asked the Town Council to send the proposed budget to voters in June to let them decide.

“This year’s budget … is a true compromise,” she added. “The School Board has been forced to negotiate against itself. … We are at a crossroads.”

Measelle Hubbs also proposed forming a joint committee of councilors, board members and other citizens to develop ways to increase local revenue for the schools, starting right after the June 12 referendum.

“We can no longer be at the state’s mercy and hope for the best,” she said. 

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

Residents line Ocean House Road outside Cape Elizabeth Town Hall to show their supportMay 7 for the proposed $25.6 million school budget. The Town Council will vote May 14 on whether to send the budget to a June 12 referendum.