Cumberland-North Yarmouth voters initially OK school budget

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CUMBERLAND — Nearly 300 Cumberland and North Yarmouth residents filled seats in the Greely High School gym May 17 to ratify next year’s proposed School Administrative District 51 budget.

The $37.3 million spending plan – proposed to increase 3.8 percent from this year, and available at msad51.org – now goes to a budget validation referendum for final approval June 12.

Despite two attempts to reduce spending, all budget items passed as proposed by the SAD 51 Board of Directors.

Offsetting spending is a projected $11.3 million in revenue, down 5.5 percent ($664,000) from the current year. The decline is due primarily to a $442,000 loss in state subsidy ($11.3 million down to $10.9 million), which, in the last three years, has declined by more than $1 million, Superintendent Jeff Porter has said.

Of the 3.8 percent increase, 2.7 percent comprises fixed costs needed to open district doors with all personnel and programs still in place. The other 1.1 percent represents about $392,000 in strategic priorities, while another $537,000 of such priorities went unfunded, according to budget information presented at the meeting.

The original budget increase, as rolled out in March, was 4.65 percent. But a $450,000 savings in projected employee health insurance costs, along with another $75,000 in savings due to recently announced retirements and salary line adjustments, helped shave that hike.

The savings led Porter to propose reinstating three positions that were scheduled to be cut: a teacher at both Greely middle and high schools ($62,600 each), and an elementary-level educational technician ($35,000), which added $160,000 back to the budget. He also proposes adding a new kindergarten teacher at the Mabel I. Wilson School ($62,500), because about 20 more students registered over last year.

A second-grade teacher at the Mabel I. Wilson School ($68,000), also to address growing class sizes, has already been in the proposed budget.

Last week’s meeting, which ran about an hour and a half, saw ripples from a resolution the Cumberland Town Council passed three days before, calling for the School Board to take a last look at reducing the district’s fiscal year 2019 budget to ease the burden on taxpayers. The School Board has strongly defended its work in keeping spending as low as possible while meeting student needs.

When Article 1 on last week’s budget meeting warrant – $16.7 million for regular instruction – went before voters for discussion prior to the typical show-of-hands vote, Cumberland Councilor Bill Stiles proposed a motion to reduce that line item by $150,000. He also called for the vote to be decided by written ballot.

Although he did not explain his reasoning at the meeting, Stiles on Monday said he intended to have the $150,000 address the positions added back into the budget after SAD 51’s cost savings. The written ballots were meant to allow residents in favor of the reduction to vote privately, without being pressured by others in the audience opposing the change, he said.

“They could vote their conscience,” he explained.

“I get frustrated that they have a shortfall in their income; I know of no business, that when they have a shortfall of income, increases spending,” Stiles added.

“It’s hard to tell exactly what the $150,000 is going to,” SAD 51 Chairwoman Gigi Sanchez said after Stiles’ amendment. She speculated that the funds reflected the three reinstated positions, and said the board, after lengthy deliberations, “decided that while we will continue to look for efficiencies, these positions were needed … and we supported them.”

Feeling that “educational learning … will be sacrificed without those three positions,” she added, “I reject the motion,” followed by a round of applause.

Ten percent of the audience was required to send the matter to written ballot, and 70 people were hand-counted to have voted yes. The amendment ultimately failed, 224-56.

Jim Moulton of North Yarmouth, who has served both on that town’s Select Board and School Board, proposed the second amendment during Article 14. That article, which requires a written ballot, called for $10.5 million to be raised in funds exceeding the state’s Essential Programs and Services allocation.

“We’re all for education,” Moulton said. “… But I cannot believe on a $37 million budget, that we’ve hit the sweet spot, that there’s actually no waste, or nothing in there we can’t do without. … This is unsustainable.”

Given the $450,000 in health insurance savings from what SAD 51 had originally budgeted, Moulton called for that amount to be cut from Article 14. A show-of-hands vote defeated that amendment, and the original motion passed by written ballot, 203-48.

Voting takes place June 12 from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. at the former North Yarmouth Memorial School, 120 Memorial Highway, and at Cumberland Town Hall, 290 Tuttle Road.

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

The School Administrative District 51 budget meeting, held in the Greely High School gym, drew about 280 Cumberland and North Yarmouth voters May 17.

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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.