Cape Elizabeth school budget opponents' claims questioned
CAPE ELIZABETH — A citizen group claiming to provide "analysis and research for accurate decision making" on town budgets and projects has distributed inaccurate information about the school budget.
A flier titled "Vote no, too high and don't compromise on the school budget" that was distributed at the transfer station last weekend by Cape For All lists what the group claims are school budgets and budget proposals from other area towns, including Cumberland, Scarborough, Falmouth, Yarmouth, Kennebunk and Gorham. Much of the information is incorrect, based on comparisons with previously published news reports and information posted on school department Web sites.
The flier also unclearly indicates the amount of federal stimulus funding being provided to the school district, and fails to compare the state funding shortfalls faced by each school district being compared.
It reports student enrollment figures that, based on Internet archives of school reports, are inaccurate and includes statements from "school officials," some of which were rebutted by school officials this week.
Wainwright Drive resident William DeSena, president of Cape For All, was reached by telephone Thursday morning aboard an airplane about to take off; all he had time to say was that information about the Cape school system came from attending School Board meetings and workshops, and that budget information from other districts came from speaking with superintendents and business directors of those districts.
He said that some will dispute the information provided in the flier, but maintained that it was accurate and based on raw dollar figures provided by school departments.
School Board Finance Committee Chairwoman Kathy Ray said Thursday that she is "disappointed" by the inaccurate information floating around about the school budget, especially since the school validation election is next week. Absentee voting has already started; polls are open Tuesday, May 12, at the high school.
Though she did not say Cape For All information was the only inaccurate data, she did say that recent inaccurate info prompted school officials to draft their own budget summary and information, which is now posted on the School Department Web site. Figures provided include information about Cape's spending increase as compared to other town's increases, information about federal and state aid, as well as per-pupil spending in Cape and other towns.
"We spent a couple of hours putting it all together," Ray said, "There seems to be a lot of information out there, some of it's accurate, some is not. It's the School Board's duty to be accurate and put out correct information. We needed to respond to some info floating out there."
Superintendent Alan Hawkins Thursday reinforced the idea that school officials are making no statements about one group or another being right or wrong, but said that "one of the jobs of the School Board is to provide correct information to the public."
The Cape For All flier claims that "proposed school spending budgets" in Cumberland (School Administrative District 51), Gorham, Yarmouth and Kennebunk (Regional School Unit 21) include zero percent increases. It says Scarborough is looking at a 0.85 percent decrease, that Falmouth will see a 0.73 percent decrease, and that Cape Elizabeth will see a 2.47 percent spending increase.
In fact, Cape Elizabeth spending will only increase 1.1 percent, or $217,000, from this year's budget if approved by voters May 12. Because of revenue decreases of 5.4 percent, or $186,000, the net tax increase is 2.47 percent, or $404,000. This proposal would add 20 cents to the tax rate for school services. However, combined with the proposed municipal budget, which is set to decrease, the total tax rate would go up 11 cents, or 0.6 percent.
A major part of the revenue decrease was a $500,000 decrease in state aid for next year. The school's general purpose aid was set to decrease $1.1 million based on the state funding formula, but nearly $700,000 of that money was returned through the federal stimulus package stabilization funds, making Cape's total state aid for next year $1.8 million.
It was also recently announced that the schools will receive an additional $421,000 in federal funds dedicated to special education. The schools will also be receiving $421,000 in federal funds this year to offset the curtailment ordered earlier this year by the state. All state school districts will see reimbursement of funds curtailed.
SAD 51 did, in fact, keep its proposed spending flat, but because of significant revenue decreases caused by the secession of Chebeague Island, Cumberland taxpayers face an increase of 3.4 percent to the tax rate, or 47 cents per $1,000 assessed value. North Yarmouth taxpayers face an increase of 8.2 percent, or 92 cents on the mil rate.
The Scarborough Town Council this week approved a school spending increase of $49,000 over this year. Combined with the municipal budget, the town's tax rate will remain flat.
Yarmouth has been presented a budget representing a 1.85 percent increase, which combined with municipal decreases would increase taxes by 1.86 percent, or 36 cents. A public hearing was set for Thursday, after The Forecaster's deadline.
Falmouth was originally presented a budget including an increase of $105,000 from this year, but after it was announced that state aid would decrease $290,000, the district made further cuts to present a budget that is $184,000 less than this year. That decrease will keep the town's mil rate unchanged.
According to published reports, RSU 21 faces a budget with a 0.6 percent decrease from the combined total of current budgets for Arundel and SAD 71. According to documents on the Gorham schools Web site, their proposed budget will take 28 cents off the total mil rate, a decrease of 2.7 percent.
The Cape For All flier also reports that school enrollment has decreased by 130 students since 2006. According to Internet archives of school enrollment data, enrollment in June 2006 was 1,838. In October 2007 it was 1,780 and in September 2008 it was 1,744, for a decrease since 2006 of 94 students. Town Councilor Anne Swift-Kayatta said recently that enrollment figures are expected to continue dropping at a rate of about 7 percent, although the time period for that decrease is unclear and she was unavailable for comment Thursday.
Cape For All claims to have spoken with teachers "who have not been evaluated in 10 years." Hawkins first refuted that claim outright, but then said that "there could be someone, but I don't know who they are." He said teachers are scheduled to be evaluated every three years and new teachers are evaluated every year.
Cape For All also claims that the schools have no process to "monitor, measure, or manage our school curriculum." But Hawkins said there is a "very active" curriculum, instruction and assessment team charged with changing, coordinating and assessing the curriculum. The team is in the process of adopting a new science curriculum, has a new English/language arts curriculum to unveil soon, and has language, math, and guidance programs in the works.
For further information on the Cape school budget, see the school Web site. A "budget-at-a-glance" file was posted to the site Wednesday.