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Spare change? Brunswick school chief hopes residents will donate it

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Spare change? Brunswick school chief hopes residents will donate it

BRUNSWICK — Critics of Maine's public school funding often say it puts an unfair burden on local property taxpayers, many of whom don't have school-age children.

Brunswick schools Superintendent Paul Perzanoski couldn't agree more.

Which is why Perzanoski is drafting a plan to add voluntary, local contributions to future district school budgets.

Perzanoski said this week that he's working with the Southern Midcoast Maine Chamber to create a program that would allow customers at some local businesses to round-up the price of their purchases so that the change could be donated to the School Department.

Perzanoski said the program could also include donation jars at smaller businesses.

The program, still in the planning stages, is being considered as the school department grapples with significant cuts in state and federal subsidies, and lawmakers' reluctance to raise taxes during tough economic times. 

Perzanoski said the problem is that reductions in federal and state aid shift the burden locally, to property taxpayers. Local officials are also under pressure to hold the budget line, which in Brunswick and many other municipalities, means curriculum cuts, larger classes and layoffs.

"This program would be voluntary," Perzanoski said. "People like (Brunswick resident Pem Schaeffer) often go on about how residents should have the choice to decide if they want to support the school system, and I agree with him. ... We have to find ways to fund public education other than property taxes."

Perzanoski first announced he was exploring the alternate funding program after a Feb. 25 meeting between the School Board and the town's legislative delegation. During that meeting lawmakers essentially told school officials that there was little chance to lessen recent state aid cuts or raise taxes to support education funding. 

"There was no discussion about what we could do, only how bleak it looks," Perzanoski said. "If they say over and over again that the sky is falling and you let it hit you on the head, it's your own fault. This is our way of doing something about it."

Perzanoski's plan has some precedent. Municipalities in other states have set up foundations to provide small grants to fund curriculum or programs that might not otherwise survive the budget process.

Perzanoski said he explored the option last year when several private donors approached him, but the project never materialized.

Rockland reportedly has a spare-change program in which local merchants ask customers to round-up their purchases to the nearest dollar. Like Perzanoski's proposal, the difference is used to fund local education programs.

So far, it appears state law is silent on the legality of alternative funding programs. However, Rep. Charlie Priest, D-Brunswick, warned last week that the proliferation of privatized or voluntary school funding could trigger equity complaints from less affluent communities.

Perzanoski also wants to make sure alternative funding efforts won't be used by the state to justify lesser subsidies to Brunswick.

"I don't want to do this and have someone come and take away more money from the district," he said.

Nonetheless, Perzanoski is proceeding with his proposal. Even if it's finalized and approved in the next few months, the mechanism won't help the district this year.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net