Cumberland council stands by call for reduced school budget

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CUMBERLAND — After hearing a mix of opposition and support Monday for a draft resolution urging cuts to the proposed school budget, the Town Council unanimously adopted the document.

The resolution asks the School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors to take a last look at reducing the district’s fiscal year 2019 budget, to ease the burden on taxpayers.

Supporters lauded the council for standing up for what some called the silent majority, while opponents questioned the appropriateness of the Town Council trying to influence a School Board decision.

The budget –  up 3.8 percent from current spending, and available at msad51.org – goes to a district meeting at Greely High School at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 17, and then to a budget validation referendum on June 12.

Cumberland and North Yarmouth residents at the May 17 town meeting-style district budget gathering will have the opportunity to vote spending items up and down through motions from the floor. The final amount from that meeting will go to a June 12 voter referendum.

In its resolution, the Town Council states in part it “supports and values” the quality of education and schools, which attract young families. But the panel “is also sensitive to the fact that many residents of the Town have limited or fixed incomes that make them vulnerable to tax increase,” and “recent MSAD 51 assessment increases have placed a significant burden on many members of the community.”

Betts Gorsky, a former School Board member, said she was “disappointed profoundly that the Town Council has chosen to use its bully pulpit to comment on the district’s school budget.”

Gorsky said she was surprised councilors felt it was time for a dialogue on the budget, “and yet there have been numerous, numerous public meetings (when) the council, as individuals, could have weighed in.”

Councilor Tom Gruber said the resolution is “only a request; we’re not demanding anything. … Because of the input that I have received from many citizens, they have asked that we do at least something. … The School Board may look at it and say, ‘thanks but no thanks.’ It doesn’t mandate anything.”

The resolution assumes the SAD 51 board has not done its best to put forward a budget with an appropriate amount of spending to recommend, Jim Bailinson, another former School Board member, told the council.

“I’m worried that your proposed resolution blurs the lines of responsibility between the council and the School Board. It sets a dangerous precedent for the council to take a position on the school budget,” and creates an “us versus them” mentality, Bailinson said.

Councilor Ron Copp, a Cumberland native who has spent his entire life here,  called the school budget “a runaway freight train” that is “gonna derail. And when it does … guys like me are gonna leave.”

“Five generations, and I’m gonna leave, and I’m this close right now,” Copp said, his voice shaking as he displayed a small space between his thumb and forefinger.

A business owner with two residences and vacant land in town, he said he could not sustain his growing tax bills in Cumberland.

“The Town Council is asking the School Board to take another look at their budget, and they’re offended by it; that’s my take,” Copp added.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.