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Scarborough School Board members upset by budget action

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Scarborough School Board members upset by budget action

SCARBOROUGH — School Board members are frustrated after the Town Council's Finance Committee and town manager recommended slashing more than $800,000 from their proposed budget.

The cuts – over which the School Board has no say – came April 17, after the School Board had already cut the superintendent's $36.3 million original proposal down to $35.6 million, which represents an increase of $92,000, or 1.2 percent, over this year's budget.

Those cuts were made after the Town Council adopted a resolution asking the board to request staff to give up pay increases for next year, and bring forward a budget with zero impact to taxes, "limiting fixed cost increases by delivering a fiscally responsible budget while maintaining current levels of programs and services."

That budget would have increased the town's property taxes by 0.34 percent at current valuation.

School Board members Annalee Rosenblatt, Chris Browney, and Chairman Brian Dell'olio said in a letter to The Forecaster this week that if the $807,000 of further cuts recommended by the town Finance Committee are approved, the reductions "will have an impact (that) will be felt in the academic/athletic/extracurricular programs, class size, and/or busing/cafeteria services."

The school and municipal budgets were scheduled for a first reading by the Town Council Thursday night, and will go before a public hearing Wednesday, April 29, at 7 p.m. From information gathered at that public hearing, the Town Council will set a school budget to be voted on by the public May 12.

Rosenblatt said Wednesday that she hopes Town Councilors this week will vote to put back some of the $800,000 cut before the public hearing is held. About $92,000 of that cut was recommended by Town Manager Tom Hall, who came up with that figure based on the cost of two new computer teacher positions. She said she's unclear how the Finance Committee came up with the remaining $715,000. 

"Surely they didn't just pick a number out of the air?" she asked, but added that she's afraid most of the cut was a reaction to the School Department's ability to cope with a $781,000 curtailment ordered late last year by the state.

The school system managed to quickly cut more than $200,000 in expenses by immediately eliminating supply purchases, field trips, and other non-essential expenses. "I think some of (the Finance Committee's) thought is, when we had our budget curtailed and were able to manage without it, why did we need it?," Rosenblatt said.

The curtailment is set to be refunded by federal stimulus monies beginning in May; money not spent this year is expected to go toward supplies and curriculum materials for next year, eliminating expenses out of next year's budget, she said.

"We did what they asked us to do," Rosenblatt said. "They asked us to bring a zero percent tax levy. We did it. We were determined to do it. And then it wasn't good enough."

A larger part of Rosenblatt's frustration comes as a reaction to the Finance Committee's treatment of the municipal budget by comparison. 

According to Hall, the Finance Committee cut $72,000 from municipal expenses, and added $934,000 in anticipated revenues, bringing down the total impact to taxpayers. A majority of the added revenues, he said, come from transferring funds from the town's undesignated balance into the budget. Undesignated balances are typically used by towns as contingency funds and to facilitate cash flow during the year. Hall said more than $1.2 million has been recommended to be transferred from that account into the general municipal fund.

Rosenblatt said it was frustrating to see the town play with their estimated revenue amounts, because it's not a "true reduction," while the school is facing very real cuts. "We can't just offset our budget by upping our revenues," she said. "We know our revenues."

Even more upsetting, she said, is the appearance that the school system is carrying the brunt of the burden. If the municipal and school budgets are approved as most recently recommended by the Finance Committee, the property tax rate would decrease 31 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or 2.5 percent (based on assessment predictions for next year as estimated by Hall).

With a total decrease to taxes, after the schools were asked merely to come to a flat amount, Rosenblatt is afraid that tax cut is coming at the expense of the schools. "And I question the appropriateness of that," she said.

Over the next two weeks, as the council meets and holds a public hearing, Hall said he expects several items will come up as Town Council concerns, and the school budget could be of them. Also on the list of items he expects will be discussed are proposed library cuts of $45,000, which will flat fund the library from this year, and the proposed transfer of money from the undesignated balance.

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

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