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CAPE ELIZABETH — Five months after the last election, questions are still being raised about how to address a potential conflict of interest between the Town Council and School Board, which Town Manager Matt Sturgis called “uncharted territory.”
The School Board and Town Council met April 12 to discuss implications of the school’s $25.6 million budget.
But for nearly a half hour prior to the budget discussion, council Chairwoman Jessica Sullivan led discussion about the potential conflict of interest between Councilor Chris Straw and his wife, Hope, who is a member of the School Board.
While town attorney Thomas Leahy said in December that there is nothing in the Town Charter that would disqualify the Straws from serving simultaneously on the council and School Board, he said voting on the school budget was less clear-cut.
Leahy advised Chris Straw to disclose his position when the budget is presented, leaving it up to the council to decide if there is an appearance of a conflict or bias and if a recusal is necessary.
Sullivan last week said she sees a “significant bias” that warrants further discussion, while Councilor Penelope Jordan said she was confident in Straw’s ability to participate.
Councilor Caitlin Jordan was absent and Councilor Sara Lennon arrived near the end of the discussion. Because a motion would take four votes to pass and would likely be the status quo for all other budget discussions, the issue was tabled.
Councilor Jamie Garvin said it was a matter that required input from every councilor.
“I don’t want to inadvertently back us into a corner,” Garvin said.
The potential conflict was first raised in the months leading up to the last election, when Straw was asked by a reporter in September why voters should not be concerned about electing a married couple to the two panels.
He first derided the question as “sexist,” saying he and his wife are independent people with their own opinions on issues, but later apologized and said he was being “facetious” at the time. After considering the question further, he said he realized it could be a legitimate concern of residents and should be addressed.
School Board Chairwoman Susana Measelle Hubbs said she was frustrated that the conflict of interest question took time from the joint meeting, which she said she requested at the beginning of budget discussions in February with the hope it would happen before the budget was adopted April 10.
However, Sullivan recommended sticking with an April 12 meeting after legal counsel advised that the Town Council is prohibited, by Town Charter, from engaging in the School Board’s budget deliberations until after the board has voted.
Measelle Hubbs said she didn’t see anything in the charter that would preclude the council and board from having a discussion about budget implications.
Members of both panels referenced a “one-town concept” and agreed future budgets will require “outside-the-box thinking” to explore how town revenue streams might be able to offset challenges – such as a cut of almost $875,000 in state funding – facing the school budget.
School Finance Committee Chairman John Voltz said the board has control over the expense side of its budget, but “very little” over the revenue side.
Measelle Hubbs said the only increase in fiscal year 2019 expenditures the board has control over is $60,000 for a new custodian at the high school and about $249,000 in engineering and architect fees for a feasibility study of improvements at all three schools.
Due to strains on the school’s budget, Colby Co. Engineering and Scott Simons Architects offered to reduce their fee for the study from $760,000 to $249,000 to get the project to a bond referendum, tentatively slated for June 2019. If the borrowing is rejected, the department would not have to pay the extra $511,000.
This was an offer, Hubbs said, the board felt was too good to pass up.
Board Vice Chairwoman Heather Altenburg stressed that the proposed renovations are vital to student and staff well-being.
A custodian was budgeted into the department’s current spending, but for reasons interim Superintendent Howard Colter said he didn’t understand, that custodian ended up being assigned to work primarily at Richards Community Pool.
In an April 13 email, Facilities Director Perry Schwarz said under the one-town concept, the town covers the cost of three custodians and the remaining 12 are in the school budget. Due to scheduling challenges, he added, there are times that a high school custodian needs to assist in cleaning the Richards Community Pool so it can be completed before the end of the night.
“Our staff has to continually manipulate to the spontaneity of any given day’s events,” Schwarz said.
Aside from those two items, Measelle Hubbs said the budget was flat and maintains current staffing, programming, and quality of education. She noted that the district will lose two teachers to retirement next year, but will “absorb that loss” by not replacing them.
Th board also asked the town to consider funding a school resource officer at the high school.
Many towns, including Falmouth and York, fund their SROs through the municipal budget, rather than the schools.
Sturgis said an SRO would likely cost the town around $90,000 should the council opt to fund one. He added that he will look into applying for federal grants that could contribute around $125,000 over three years. The application process for those grants open in May.
The School Board will officially present its budget to the Town Council April 24. The two panels will also meet again April 30 to further discuss school improvements and why the board feels they’re imperative from a safety standpoint.
Christopher Straw, left, is a Cape Elizabeth town councilor. His wife Hope is on the School Board.