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Public speaks out against Scarborough school budget cuts

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Public speaks out against Scarborough school budget cuts

SCARBOROUGH — About a hundred people crowded into Town Council Chambers for Wednesday night's budget hearing.

During nearly two hours of public comment, 32 people addressed the Finance Committee's recommended cuts of more than $800,000 to the school budget. Of those who spoke, only two supported the reductions.

The Board of Education presented a budget to the Finance Committee that reflected a $92,000 spending increase, which would increase the tax levy by 0.34 percent and meet the town's request for a zero percent increase to the mil rate at current valuation.

At an emergency School Board meeting Monday, Superintendent of Schools David Doyle presented possible areas to reduce the budget, which eliminates 10 educators' positions and cuts into extra-curricular activities and weekend use of facilities.

Of great concern to many who spoke Wednesday was the elimination of a technology teacher position at the high school, which has no technology program, although it has computer lab space available. Other concerns included maintaining the quality of the teachers and programs by supporting them financially, as well as keeping all current teachers employed and class sizes small.

While some questioned why the school would add a technology position in a tough economy, Doyle said it was simply reinstating a position that had been cut a few years ago.

"The individual who was teaching technology was a certified science teacher and we needed him to teach science because budget pressures wouldn't allow us to hire another position," he said.

Doyle and some board members speculated the Finance Committee pulled the $800,000 figure from the amount of last fall's curtailment, believing, Doyle said, that since the schools were able to make do with the reduction this year, they won't need it next year.

"You only can sustain the cuts for so long," Doyle said Thursday.

Many also believe the committee's intent was to put pressure on the teachers' union and the department to forgo raises, an agreement the town reached with its municipal employees.

The School Department's two dozen administrators, including Doyle, have agreed to forgo raises. The rest are in union negotiations, which could be completed by the end of this week.

"They are aware of what's going on and probably being a lot more reasonable than some folks may be implying," Doyle said of the teachers and other unionized professionals. "The vast majority of our staff are still in the negotiating stage; despite that, we are still at a zero percent increase on the net. That's the part that's most bewildering on the school side ... we gave them what they asked for."

Council Chairman Mike Wood said Thursday that he was impressed by the School Board's ability to adjust to last fall's $800,000 curtailment. Though he understood Town Manager Tom Hall's suggestion to cut about $100,000 for the technology program, he said he was unsure how the Finance Committee came up with the request to cut an additional $715,000.

"I've always been a little bit troubled putting sense around that number," he said. "My sense is it was a bit much."

But Councilor and Finance Committee member Richard Sullivan said Thursday the committee had reached the figure by determining how much of the budget represented raises for teachers. He said it had nothing to do with curtailment money.

"At the first meeting, we asked the superintendent for an explanation of the increase in teachers' wages but he couldn't answer the question – he wasn't prepared at all for the questions we had," Sullivan said. "At the second meeting, he never showed up and never put anything in writing about teachers' salaries."

After Wednesday's public hearing, Sullivan said he heard a few comments that may change his mind about the amount of the reduction.

"I'm in favor of adding some of the money back that has been taken," he said. "Some people that spoke did make an impression on me; others did not."

The council will hold its second reading and vote on the budget Wednesday, May 6, at 7 p.m. The school budget referendum will be held Tuesday, May 12. Those who vote against the school budget on the ballot will be asked whether it is because the budget is too high or too low.

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or proberts@theforecaster.net.