CAPE ELIZABETH — A divided Town Council reduced the School Board’s proposed budget Monday by $110,000, avoiding a spending increase from the current year.
The decision, over objections from School Board members and members of the public, followed an April 27 meeting of the council finance committee, comprised of the entire Town Council, which said it wanted no spending increase.
Councilors Monday also approved a municipal budget for fiscal 2016 with an increase of nearly 1.6 percent.
Monday’s vote was 4-3, with Chairwoman Kathy Ray and Councilors Jim Walsh, Jessica Sullivan, and Molly MacAuslan in the majority. Councilors Caitlin Jordan, Jamie Wagner, and Patty Grennon favored reducing the school budget by only $50,000, which was one of three options presented by the School Board.
The board came up with the options, which included the full cut, the $50,000 cut, or maintaining the budget as proposed, at a May 4 meeting. The $50,000 cut would have eliminated money earmarked for new accounting software.
The budget the School Board approved on April 14, was $23.6 million, an increase of 1.8 percent from this year.
Sixteen members of the public spoke during Monday’s public hearing, and most of them urged councilors to avoid the $110,000 reduction. Half a dozen people supported the council’s flat budget.
School Board Chairwoman Joanna Morrissey said she wished councilors had given board members an indication earlier in the process that they were expecting no increase.
After the meeting she said she was frustrated with the outcome and wished the council had at least considered the $50,000 cut, rather than staying with the full reduction.
“It’s more an authoritative response rather than a collaboration,” Morrissey said. “We’re trying to model for our kids what good civic compromise looks like.”
Walsh, chairman of the finance committee, said he thought a zero percent increase was appropriate.
“I think the citizens of this town deserve this budget,” he said.
Wagner, who wasn’t present at the April 27 finance committee meeting, said he wasn’t comfortable with a zero percent increase because there didn’t seem to be a logical explanation for it.
“I don’t see any magic to a zero percent increase,” he said. “It’s an arbitrary number. Zero percent has little meaning to me.”
Wagner also pointed out that councilors didn’t ask any other town departments to produce a flat budget.
Jordan said that was unfair. “We should have been going across the board,” she said.
Sullivan said councilors weren’t singling out the School Department. She noted there have been times when the council has helped the board, such as last December with the $1.75 million bond the town decided to borrow for maintenance projects at the schools.
“I think this Town Council has been very supportive of the School Department,” Sullivan said. “I think what we’re asking for, and I’m definitely in favor of, is extremely reasonable.”
Sullivan also spoke of a School Department budget “windfall” of around $1 million because of health-care savings, a retired bond, and an increased state subsidiary.
“You have had a windfall and I think that (a zero percent increase) is something that would be very prudent to do,” she said. “I think it’ll be very easily done without affecting any student learning in the classroom.”
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable because it’s such a unique year,” she said.
Several councilors said they have received harshly critical emails since the April 27 committee decision.
“My hope is we don’t have a firestorm between now and June 9,” Walsh said, when the school budget goes to a public referendum.
Morrissey said she hopes the board and Council can both move on from the budget disagreement.
“I personally would prefer that the town put this behind us,” she said after the meeting.
Besides the school budget, councilors also approved the municipal budget of $9.8 million, which is up from this year’s $9.2 million.
The total $35.2 million town budget, which includes municipal and school, as well as the $1.1 million county assessment and $465,000 for Community Services, increases the tax rate by 32 cents, bringing the total to $17.12 per $1,000 of assessed value.