In Cape Elizabeth, $1 makes a difference for school budget

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CAPE ELIZABETH — The battle to approve a fiscal year 2018 school budget to put before voters June 13 was a tug of war Monday night, with three councilors favoring a higher spending plan and three councilors pulling in the opposite direction.

The back and forth lasted from 7:25-8:40 p.m., resulting in two tie votes on the $24.8 million budget adopted earlier by the School Board and two ties for a $24.6 million budget – a 1 percent reduction – proposed by Councilor Jessica Sullivan.

On the town side, councilors Monday night moved more easily, voting 6-0 to reduce the proposed municipal budget by $48,000, as recommended by Town Manager Matt Sturgis, to $12.1 million. The reduction was made possible after the resignation of the school facilities and transportation director.

Councilors Katharine Ray, Penny Jordan and Sullivan voted for the lower school budget, with Ray and Sullivan saying spending was increasing beyond some residents’ means. Chairman Jamie Garvin and Councilors Caitlin Jordan and Patricia Grennon supported the school board’s budget.

In the end, the board’s proposal passed 4-2 when Garvin, Penny Jordan, Caitlin Jordan, and Grennon voted to support the $24.8 million after it was reduced by $1. Ray and Sullivan voted against the proposal.

The series of tie votes were made possible because Councilor Sara Lennon is on a leave of absence while she works temporarily at Cape Elizabeth High School. The Town Charter prohibits councilors from working for the town or School Department.

Residents will have the final say on the school budget June 13 in the annual budget validation referendum.

With Monday night’s school budget vote, the combined proposed town, county and education spending plan is complete. The combined $38.7 million budget results in a tax rate of $18.19 per $1,000 property valuation. That’s a 65-cent increase, or 3.7 percent rise, over the present $17.54 property tax rate.

If any extra money from the state is returned to help with school spending, it will be used to reduce the property tax rate, councilors agreed. This subsidy will not be known until the Legislature completes its work in Augusta.

Councilors’ discussion on the school budget highlighted the town’s pride in its schools and the need to look out for all of the residents, especially those on fixed incomes.

“I feel people in Cape Elizabeth move to Cape Elizabeth particularly for our schools,” Grennon said. “We have solid, excellent schools, and at the same time, (they) raise all our property values.”

Grennon said the School Board’s budget is not out of line.

Ray, who has 14 years of experience with school budgets, believed differently.

Class sizes are going down as student enrollment is declining, she said, yet staffing remains the same.

In 2001, 1,736 students were enrolled in kindergarten through grade 12, and the school budget was $13.6 million. Student enrollment peaked in 2006, with 1,847 students, and the budget was $17.5 million.

Enrollment for next year, under the $24.8 million budget, is expected to be 1,571.

The school budget represents the largest percentage of taxpayers’ property bills. School staff salaries and benefits are the lion’s share of the school budget.

“I support the Cape Elizabeth schools. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here,” Ray said.

The partnership between the schools, the parents, and the students build academic excellence, she said.

“I know there are residents who can’t afford this,” said Ray. “This is not a bare-bones budget.”

With declining enrollment and less state support for local education, school spending is critical, she said, and the school budget needs to be pared down.

“So I ask,” Ray said, “If not tonight, then when?”

Shortly before the 4-2 vote, Ray spoke again, saying, “that the number the town council sends to the voters is likely to be approved – it has (been) historically. The council’s decision tonight may seal it.”

Lisa D. Connell can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or Follow Lisa on Twitter: @connell_ld.

Cape Elizabeth Town Councilor Patricia Grennon, right, speaks in support May 15 of a $24.8 million school budget proposed by the School Board.