Divided council sends Cape Elizabeth school budget to June 8 referendum

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CAPE ELIZABETH — The Town Council approved the fiscal 2011 school budget on Tuesday, May 25.

The $20.7 million budget now goes to a citizen referendum on June 8.

Chairwoman Anne Swift-Kayatta and Councilor Jessica Sullivan voted against the budget in the 5-2 decision.

The total town budget is $31.4 million, a 2 percent increase over this year. The tax rate for 2011 is $17.85, an increase of 31 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, up 1.8 percent from this year.

Voters on June 8 will have the opportunity to approve or reject the school budget – which would increase $672,000, or 3.4 percent – and offer advisory language of too high, too low or adequate.

Swift-Kayatta said she could not support the school budget because it is not the time to levy a property tax increase.

She also said student enrollment has declined for the sixth consecutive year while the number of teachers has remained flat. Spending per student has increased 29 percent in five years, and school spending has increased each year for more than 10 years in a row at rates significantly ahead of inflation, she said.

Teachers will receive salary increases, Swift-Kayatta said, while municipal employees, other than those under the police contract, will not.

Even though the municipal tax rate is reduced, she said the tax rate will rise because of increases from the schools and Community Services.

“I cannot endorse another sizable school spending increase, no matter how good our teachers and school programs are, when enrollment continues to fall and spending per student has increased so much – 29 percent – over the past five years,” Swift-Kayatta said. “Therefore, while I support the municipal budget with its tax decrease, I will be voting no on the school budget tonight and no/too high on the school budget at the polls on June 8.”

Sullivan also said she, too, cannot not support the school budget as presented because of the economic condition of the country and the state. Sullivan said with declining student enrollments and increases in the cost per pupil, more efficiencies in the school budget need to be made.

“As a town councilor, stewardship of tax dollars is of utmost importance to our citizenry,” she said.

Councilors Frank Governali, Sara Lennon, Jim Walsh, Penny Jordan and David Sherman endorsed the school spending plan.

“I understand there is this desire to keep taxes flat, or to be mindful of the tax burden on our citizens, I get all of that,” Sherman said. “But when I see a school budget that is going to result in a modest tax increase of 1.8 percent overall, to the tax bills of the citizens in our town, and I look at the tremendous services that our town provides to its citizens on both the municipal side and the school side I’m proud to endorse that budget.

“Ultimately the voters get to decide, but I hope and I urge all voters out there when it comes time to vote on this budget on June 8 that they vote yes/acceptable.”

The previous night, Monday, May 24, only two residents spoke during a public hearing held  specifically for input on the proposed budget.

Ruthanne Haley and Mary Anne Lynch spoke against the budget.

Lynch said she was “deeply disappointed” by the increase in the school budget. She said she supports a quality public education, but with student enrollment declining, there should be no increase in teacher salaries. 

“Despite the worst economic times since the Depression, you are poised to adopt a school budget that defies reason and is not supported by the facts, and I am deeply disappointed in this school budget,” Lynch said.

Haley said it is not the right time for an increase in the school budget. She said instead of paying for increases in teacher salaries, benefits and insurance, time and money should be put into the classrooms.

“I think you need to take a reality check. People are in foreclosure and they are losing their jobs, and we are not putting our money into the classrooms,” she said. “I want you to think about where or funds are actually going. I think our priorities are not as clear as they should be.”

Voting in the Cape Elizabeth budget validation referendum is on Tuesday, June 8, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the high school gymnasium.

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 or aanderson@theforecaster.net

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