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Legislators to Brunswick school officials: Prepare for the worst

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Legislators to Brunswick school officials: Prepare for the worst

BRUNSWICK — The School Board met with the town's legislative delegation Feb. 25, a week after the board's chairman blamed the contingent for doing too little to curb an estimated $2.8 million cut in state aid.

The work session was scheduled to discuss ways to deal with the projected cut, part of $73 million Gov. John Baldacci is proposing to slash in statewide school funding next year. If ratified by the Legislature, Brunswick's reduction would account for nearly 10 percent of the district's current subsidy, a cut school officials have called disproportionate.

Recently, board Chairman Byron Watson took his frustration a step further, calling out the delegation for not seeing to a less drastic reduction.

Watson, in turn, was criticized by local lawmakers for not meeting with them, and for what they described as inappropriate and sexist comments made in the chairman's Feb. 5 e-mail to House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven.

Watson's e-mail, and his published comments about the delegation, has led some to call for his resignation, including Jonathan Crimmins, a past and potential Republican candidate for the Legislature.

The School Board is expected to review the matter during its March 10 meeting.

On Feb. 25, both sides refrained from the accusatory rhetoric to discuss what, if anything, could be done to ease Brunswick's situation, which is made worse by the 2011 closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station.

The news wasn't encouraging.

While praising the district for proactively freezing expenditures on non-essential programs and running efficiently, local lawmakers told school officials that the district was not alone in feeling the budgetary pain.

"We're not being taken advantage of," said Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick.

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, co-chairman of the Legislature's Education Committee, told the board that there are few communities across the state that are looking at their fiscal year 2011 budgets and seeing anything but "red, red and more red."

The South Portland School District last week announced it could cut up to 31 jobs and close a middle school to meet its budgetary gap. Alfond said that grim projections are being heard everywhere across the state.

Alfond noted that although Brunswick is facing a 9.5 percent subsidy reduction, some rural communities are facing cuts as large as 27 percent. Alfond added that Brunswick's $5.3 million fund balance was virtually unheard of in other districts.

But school officials argued that the district's cash reserves were the result of planning for the current fiscal crisis, steps that included closing Hawthorne Elementary School a year ahead of schedule, the non-essential freeze and staff reductions through attrition.

Despite those measures, Superintendent Paul Perzanoski said the district is still facing a $4 million gap for 2010-2011, a shortfall attributed to the proposed cut in state aid, loss of tuition high school students from Durham and dropping federal impact aid from the U.S. Navy.

Perzanoski said the gap will likely lead to layoffs and larger classes.

"We have decreased staff and we have streamlined and done due diligence and prepared ourselves for a $2.2 million cut, and we got hit with $4 million," Perzanoski said.

Perzanoski also worried that the district could face additional hardship during the redevelopment of BNAS because state aid projections are based on a two-year cycle. If school enrollment increases as families begin moving to Brunswick, he said, the district could be caught short-staffed and underfunded.

Meanwhile, several board members challenged the delegation's assertion that it was up to Maine citizens to vocalize support for raising taxes to ensure school budgets maintain current spending levels.

Rep. Charlie Priest, D-Brunswick, said a movement to raise taxes on items like cigarettes or hotel lodging had to come from the "bottom up", not the other way around. Priest noted voters' recent 2-to-1 defeat of a proposal to fund the Dirigo health plan through tax increases on certain beverages, as well as the current people's ballot initiative to overturn last year's tax reform bill.

Priest, responding to board member Michelle Small's comment that the Legislature should take the lead in any effort to increase state revenue, noted that Baldacci has threatened to veto any bill proposing a tax increase.

"The governor's mind needs to be changed," Priest said. "But it has to come from the voters, not us."

Gerzofsky agreed.

"This is the situation until the people of Maine tell us they want to raise taxes instead of bringing us the (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) every two years," he said.

In the meantime, the delegation said, the district would be wise to continue preparing for the worst – which will likely come as soon as next year.

Gerzofsky and Perzanoski called the discussion constructive, despite the meeting's gloomy projections and the exchange of words between Watson and the delegation that preceded it.

"Perzanoski deserves credit for calming me down," Gerzofsky said.

"When it's all said and done, we either do this, or we can do this," said Gerzofsky, first putting two fists together, then locking his fingers.

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