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Scarborough faces school, municipal budget woes

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Scarborough faces school, municipal budget woes

SCARBOROUGH — In a meeting described as cordial and productive, school officials sat down last week with municipal leaders to discuss possibilities for finding $1.13 million to cover the state curtailment to the school budget.

And, while the subject did not come up, they later acknowledged the School Board is headed toward asking the town for financial assistance while the town ponders raising taxes or reducing services.

"They stopped short of asking the town to shoulder that burden, but clearly that's the direction they are headed in," Town Manager Tom Hall said.

Superintendent of Schools David Doyle and School Board Chairman Brian Dell'Olio requested the meeting with Hall and Council Chairwoman Carol Rancourt to talk about efforts the district has made to find savings and to discuss potential areas for further cuts.

Though Doyle confirmed the board has identified nearly $1 million in cost cuts and revenue that will help offset the curtailment, the district is still looking at a gap of about $400,000 to cover the remainder of the curtailment and historical overruns for substitute teachers and the food service program.

In past years, he said, the department has transferred funds at the end of the year to cover the excess.

"Those are lines we're keeping a close eye on, given the history, we've got to be aware of those as we're doing reductions elsewhere," Doyle said.

A good portion of the funding cuts – about $450,000 – will be covered by closing out old Capital Improvement Project surpluses from projects that came in under budget, Doyle said. For example, a few years ago, the department borrowed $395,000 for portable classrooms at Wentworth Intermediate School, but the portables cost $250,000, leaving a surplus of $145,000.

That amount, along with an additional $305,000 in surplus bonded amounts, will be transferred to the school's surplus account and be used to pay down debt service, Doyle said. That, in turn, frees up the money budgeted for the payments to be used to cover some of the shortfall resulting from the state curtailment.

One resident who responded to a recent letter from Dell'Olio asking the public for input is concerned that the surplus is being used to finance a budget that, in effect, will then be paid for over time. Bruce Bell, of Beech Ridge Road, said he wrote Dell'Olio with his concerns.

"In reality it is true; the offset debt creates a surplus in the budget to apply to the loss of revenue," he said in a phone interview Wednesday. "We're going to be paying plus interest on that windfall money. It's legal, but it's a smoke and mirrors game – all it is is putting off the payments until later."

But Doyle said Wednesday that according to both the town's auditors and its attorneys that the department "cannot use it for any other purpose. It had to be used to pay debt."

Dell'Olio's attempt to involve the public has elicited more than a dozen thoughtful responses, he said. Though he disagreed with Bell's assessment of the bond surplus, Dell'Olio said Bell sent him a useful spread sheet that examined the budget line by line. During the next board meeting, he said, members will examine board priorities and the mission of the district.

"The board and the public need to realize there is no way we can continue doing everything we're doing next year," he said.

Dell'Olio said board members must identify needs and then invest the money to meet those needs, even though it may mean sacrificing other programs and services that are of value.

During last week's meeting, the officials discussed the benefits of using up to the $500,000 in the school budget's undesignated fund balance to cover a portion of the current year's curtailment, versus holding on to it until next year. That discussion will be continued with the full council and board, Hall said, in a January workshop.

"The advantages of holding on to it is it's that much less money we're going to need next year when the state revenue from GPA drops from $7 million to $4 million," Dell'Olio said. "But if the town can't help out in any way, if we get to the point where we need to cut bodies using money this year, it can help soften the blow. The feedback I got from (Hall) was that he'd prefer we hold that in our pockets."

Rancourt said she came away from last week's meeting encouraged that there is "an articulated goal of both sides of town government to work together as much as possible." And she said it is not just the schools, but the municipal side that must look for ways to save money.

Though she said an increase in taxes would be difficult, she added a "modest increase" might be unavoidable unless services are drastically cut.

The council-school board workshop is scheduled for Jan. 13.

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