CAPE ELIZABETH — After questions were raised about the potential for bias because his wife serves on the School Board, town councilors Tuesday voted to allow Councilor Chris Straw to take part in school budget discussions.
The potential conflict came up during an April 12 meeting between the two panels, but was left unresolved. Chairwoman Jessica Sullivan raised the question again April 24 before the School Board presented its $25.6 million fiscal year 2019 budget to the council.
In the end, Sullivan’s motion to recuse Straw from school budget deliberations failed by a vote of 4-2. Councilor Jamie Garvin, who was leading the meeting as Finance Committee chairman, also voted in favor of the recusal. Straw abstained.
After Chris and Hope Shaw were elected to their respective panels last November, Chris Straw sought legal advice to confirm that there was no apparent conflict of interest because Hope Straw is not paid to be on the School Board.
Sullivan said her concern was about “bias.”
“I’m open to persuasion, so I say I’m not biased,” Straw said. “Furthermore I’ve never said anything like I’m going to vote for … or against the school budget no matter what.”
What continued to concern Sullivan, she said, is that prior to his election, Straw campaigned in favor of the town accepting paper streets and, after being elected, recused himself from discussions on the matter because he knows people whose homes abut one of the paper streets in question.
“I think probably you know your wife much better than people that abut the paper street and (she) is involved in crafting and advocating for an over $25 million budget,” Sullivan said. “… Aren’t you using a different standard when you are not recusing yourself from the school budget discussion?”
Straw said he only recused himself from the earlier discussions because he felt it was required by the council rules and code of ethics at the time. The guidelines have since been amended to more accurately define what’s considered a conflict of interest, Straw said.
Further, Straw said being married to a member of the School Board doesn’t pose any more of a conflict of interest than having kids in the school system or being a taxpayer.
Councilor Sara Lennon agreed, saying that having kids in the schools “could potentially be seen as far more bias than having your spouse (on the School Board). … That they’re married to me is virtually irrelevant … I have zero concerns.”
Councilor Penny Jordan also said she was confident in Straw’s ability to remain objective in the matter.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a move rules-based, principals-based person,” she said.
Largely contributing to the proposed 3.1 percent hike from current school spending is a cut of almost $875,000 in state funding – a 40 percent drop in revenue.
School Board Chairwoman Susana Measelle Hubbs said amid “enormous constraints and sensitivity to taxpayers,” the budget continues to provide outstanding education to children with an “extremely modest increase in spending.”
Two drivers behind the increase are $60,000 for a new custodian at the high school and about $249,000 in engineering and architect fees for a feasibility study for improvements at all three schools – which the council will discuss with the board thoroughly on April 30.
Aside from those items, 78 percent of that increase is spoken for by negotiated salary and health insurance increases, a package which she added is “competitive” with nearby districts and “not out of line.”
For that reason, much of Tuesday night’s budget discussion was centered around staff funding.
Jordan said state funding has dropped over the past three years, during which staffing costs in the schools have continued to “creep up.”
“The writing has been on the wall,” Jordan said. “When salaries and benefits are increasing faster than your revenues, you’ve got to back up … Because you can’t stay in business if your employee costs are going up faster than your revenue.”
She proposed reducing positions that “are not direct to the students in the classrooms,” such having shared administrators at Pond Cove Elementary School and the middle school.
Interim Superintendent Howard Colter replied that roughly 525 students per school would be “a lot to deal with” for one administrator.
“You would be so thin that pretty soon it would start falling apart,” he said. “… We think having two administrators per building fits the bill.”
Board member John Voltz said the decrease in state aid isn’t the same thing every year and could not be anticipated year to year.
Board Vice Chairwoman Heather Altenburg added that the administrators and staff working “behind the scenes” are the ones supporting teachers and holding them to such high standards.
Straw also said many of his questions surrounding the budget concern staffing. In the future, he said he would like to see three- to five-year plans for staffing.
Altenburg stressed that the board considered all positions when working through their budget and feels their proposal maintains the level of education expected from Cape Elizabeth schools.
Lennon concurred that cutting too much can compromise the quality of schools.
The council will hold a public hearing on proposed budgets on May 7 before they go to a council vote on May 14. If approved, the school budget would raise the school portion of the tax rate more than 10 percent.
At the same time, the council is considering Town Manager Matt Sturgis’s proposed $12.3 million budget that could reduce the town portion of the tax rate by 2 cents. If both are approved as proposed, the overall property tax rate would increase by $1.37, or 7.6 percent.
Christopher Straw, left, is a Cape Elizabeth town councilor. His wife Hope is on the School Board.