SAD 51 board, public seek spending cuts
Employees asked to consider renegotiations
CUMBERLAND — Despite a few positive financial surprises, including an increase of $231,000 in state aid for next year, School Administrative District 51 is still working to draft a budget palatable to taxpayers.
The Cumberland-North Yarmouth district asked Superintendent Robert Hasson to continue searching for cuts in the proposed $28.7 million budget to bring a 2.56 percent spending increase closer to zero.
In addition to the unexpected increase in next year's state subsidy, about $500,000 will be carried over into next year because a state-ordered curtailment earlier this year was replaced by the federal stimulus package after cuts and a budget freeze at SAD 51 had already been instituted.
But a $1.7 million loss of Chebeague Island monies hasn't gone away. Over the last two years, the $3.4 million given to the district when Chebeague Island seceded from Cumberland has counted toward school revenue and helped keep taxes down.
Looking toward next year, the $718,000 proposed increase in school spending has been mitigated by the federal stimulus package funds, but taxpayers are still being asked to pay $1.7 million more than they did this year.
If the proposed school budget is approved, the impact on taxes could be severe. The school budget would raise the tax rate in Cumberland by 95 cents per $1,000 of assessed value – a 6.8 percent increase. In North Yarmouth, where property values increased faster than those in Cumberland, the proposed school budget would cause a $1.36 increase in the mil rate – a 12.2 percent increase.
The seemingly disproportionate increases occur because of a state formula that bases the state share of taxpayer funding on property valuation. While Cumberland's state valuation increased by 6.7 percent over the year, North Yarmouth's rose 13.3 percent.
A handful of North Yarmouth selectmen attended the SAD 51 School Board meeting Monday. All of them commented on the proposed 12.2 percent increase to their town's taxes, concerned that taxpayers will be unwilling or unable to absorb such a hike.
Board of Selectmen Chairman Paul Napolitano noted the work reductions and furloughs his sons have taken in recent months, as well as his own business' decline. "The ability of the taxpayer is not there anymore," he said.
"The taxpayers will not accept this," Selectman Mark Verrill added, "and they have the final say."
By state law, taxpayers have the last word on school budgets through a
referendum vote in the spring. The validation election is scheduled
for May 26 in both towns.
The majority of other citizens who commented on the budget were parents of incoming sixth-graders concerned about class sizes. Some suggested reallocating middle school positions to balance this out without affecting spending.
Others suggested that the schools re-examine a dean of students position recently added to the high school, saying that the job is so similar to that of the vice principal that it isn't necessary. The school is in the process of hiring a new assistant principal, School Board Chairman David Perkins said, which is why those jobs were not examined further. The board Monday asked Hasson to examine those jobs anyway, looking for ways to save money.
Many who spoke, including several School Board members, issued a plea to teachers and school employees to re-open contract negotiations and give up this year's raises. School administrators have already given up their raises.
Others asked instead that employees give up furlough days, which cost the schools $80,000 each. Contracts cannot be re-opened without further board approval, but the board asked that informal conversations continue.
Hasson has been directed to examine all of this in the upcoming weeks, to attempt to get the budget closer to no spending increase.
"Zero percent is the benchmark," said school board member Bob Vail, repeating what he's been saying for weeks. "The 2.56 (percent increase), the public will come in here and vote that down."
Even if the increase was zero, Vail said he was "not overwhelmingly confident the taxpayers will pass that either."
"There's going to have to be a tightening of belts all around," he said, "because the alternatives are not pretty."
The School Board will hold a public budget hearing on April 14 at 7 p.m. in Town Hall. It will continue discussions until April 27, when the board is scheduled to finalize the budget for the May referendum.
Sarah Trent can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 108 or firstname.lastname@example.org.