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School budget squeaks past Cape Elizabeth council, heads to voters

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School budget squeaks past Cape Elizabeth council, heads to voters

CAPE ELIZABETH — The Town Council narrowly approved the School Board's $20 million budget proposal, allowing taxpayers to vote on the 1.1 percent spending increase.

Combined with municipal and county figures, the property tax rate would increase 0.6 percent, or 11 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, if the proposed school budget is approved by voters May 12.

During budget discussions late last month, the council appeared to be hung between supporting the School Board's proposal and making further cuts to eliminate any impact on taxes. Three councilors seemed fairly set on either side following a public hearing April 12, making Councilor Paul McKenney, who was absent from the discussion, the presumptive tie-breaker.

But in their discussion April 30, it was Councilor Penny Jordan's change in position that swung the vote to a 4-3 approval of the budget. Jordan was joined by Councilors David Backer, David Sherman, and Sara Lennon in favor of approving the School Board's proposal. Councilors Anne Swift-Kayatta, McKenney and Chairman Jim Rowe were opposed.

Jordan's change of heart came out of a lot of "grappling," she said. "Initially as I thought about it I believed the zero increase is what should be sent to voters. But as I thought about it ...I thought what was the intention of the validation process, and that process is about sending the work of the School Board to the community."

Sherman said that while he feels no excitement over raising taxes, "the School Board did a tremendous job ... to craft a budget that all town councilors were willing to support."

That support was rocked last month by news that next year's state subsidy will be $500,000 less than this year's. That cut, Sherman said, "took the floor out from everybody." The budget, he said, "has already been compromised to death," so he was prepared to send the final decision to voters.

Rowe disagreed about compromise, offering to revise the budget so that taxes would increase just 0.3 percent, but his efforts were thwarted by the final council vote. Those opposed to the proposed increase said any tax increase at this time is unreasonable.

To reach the budget voters will see next week, the School Board cut more than $1 million from existing costs and staff. Those cuts include reduced staff development, cutting ed techs, eliminating freshman coaching staff stipends, and cutting the facilities manager position to part time. The district has been criticized for not asking teachers to renegotiate wage increases.

Scarborough schools were able to save about $140,000 when teachers gave up next year's raises; Cumberland schools have asked teachers to consider taking a furlough day (unworked and unpaid) for a savings of $80,000. The Cape School Board opted not to ask teacher unions to consider any changes. According to Councilor Swift-Kayatta, the average increase to teacher salaries next year is about 5 percent.

Further information about the school budget is available on the town Web site, capeelizabeth.com.

Absentee voting for the school budget validation is underway; ballots are available by request at Town Hall. The polls will be open Tuesday, May 12, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the high school.

Sarah Trent can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 108 or strent@theforecaster.net.

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