Falmouth schools seek 5.3% budget increase

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FALMOUTH — The School Department is proposing a fiscal year 2017 budget of just under $35 million, an increase of about 5.3 percent from the current year.

At a March 18 presentation at Town Hall, Superintendent of Schools Geoff Bruno said challenges in the budget included reduced state aid, increases in fixed costs, and additional personnel required for special education.

“We’re in a great position as a district to meet many of these challenges,” Bruno said.

At a March 21 finance committee meeting, he also said the budget is as “bare bones” as it could get when it comes to new personnel requests, while still supporting students.

If approved by town councilors, and then voters at the upcoming June referendum, the school portion of the property tax rate would increase to $11.41 per $1,000 of assessed value, compared to this year’s $10.98, or an increase of $43 for every $100,000 of assessed value. This would mean an additional $174 tax increase for a home valued at $400,000.

The bulk of the budget comes from operating costs, which total nearly $30 million. But 44 percent of proposed budget increases are associated with existing costs related to personnel. The proposal calls for $330,000 in new special education requests in the form of eight new educational technicians and an additional teacher in the elementary school, along with more than $170,000 in requests for other new personnel.

The proposed budget includes $435,000 in technology costs, for system upgrades and increasing the number of devices in classrooms.

If passed, the 2017 budget would be an increase almost $1.75 million over last year’s roughly $33.2 million budget, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters last June. Unlike nearby Scarborough, where residents have a history of voting down the budget, Falmouth voters have historically supported the school budget in huge numbers.

But there were a few sticking points for School Board members during the two-day roll out, which spanned into Monday.

One major issue involves the pay-to-participate model for sports. Pay-to-participate is a fee system that was set in place in 2009 following budget shortfalls, in which families pay a set amount of money for a student to play a sport. The proposed budget looks to phase down athletic fees to a one-time fee per student athlete, and also institute an across-the-board $25 activity fee for all students in the middle and high schools.

There has been discussion on the board of eliminating these fees altogether and shifting the cost into the mil rate. Dan O’Shea, the district’s director of finance and operations, said eliminating the fees completely would add 6 cents to the mil rate each year, bringing the 2017  impact up to 49 cents. O’Shea said just removing the activity fee would increase the mil rate impact to 45 cents.

The proposed budget calls for a once-per-year fee of $175 for a high school athlete and $100 for a middle school athlete. This, coupled with the $25 activity fee, equates to $119,500 in revenue.

Last year, voters approved a budget that called for a 64-cent increase in the school portion of the property tax rate to $11.08 per $1,000 of assessed value, although that was later dropped 5 cents using a portion of unexpected additional state aid. At the time, board members called it a goodwill gesture. The remaining portion went towards replenishing an undesignated fund balance and capital reserve fund.

The board has until April 4 to decide what the final budget will look like. O’Shea said the district won’t know what the new health insurance rate will be until April 1, and said at worst it could be an increase of $35,000. O’Shea said if that happened, and the board ultimately decides to cut ties with athletic and co-curricular activity fees, the mil rate impact would be 51 cents.

Board members expressed their interest in possibly eliminating the pay-to-participate fees from the budget, depending on what happens with the rate for health insurance.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.