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School budget set, Scarborough faces tax hike of nearly 4.8%

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School budget set, Scarborough faces tax hike of nearly 4.8%

SCARBOROUGH — School Board members defended their nearly finalized fiscal 2015 education budget in a workshop Wednesday evening with the Town Council.

The latest proposed budget is $42.9 million, an 8.6 percent increase from this year and a reduction of nearly $1 million from the original proposal in March.

Additional information presented Wednesday by Town Manager Tom Hall indicates a tax increase of 4.77 percent.

The proposed budget, which reflects recommendations from the Finance Committee's meeting Monday, eliminates three requested new full-time employees: two technology integration positions and a business secretary.

But the budget leaves 10 combined new full-time positions, of which only five are actual full-time jobs requiring new hires: a technology integrator at the new Wentworth Intermediate School, one foreign language teacher at the middle school, a guidance counselor and a campus safety ed tech at the high school, and a district-wide technology applications specialist.

School Board members have justified personnel additions the last few years as continued restoration for staff cuts made in 2010. But, under pressure from residents unhappy about annual tax spikes, town councilors demanded an end date for the increases. 

"A lot of people would like to know from the school, when are we going to get to a point where you're saying the students have leveled off, when will these large increases level off?," council Chairman Richard Sullivan asked the board.

"We’re looking at trying to maintain slow and steady progression to get back to that base level," School Board Finance Committee Chairman Chris Caiazzo responded. "Is it going to take three, five, seven years? It depends what goes on in this room and what the voters approve." 

Superintendent of Schools George Entwistle III said increases would level off after school programs like foreign language, music, and other programs, which were cut in 2010, have more solid foundations. He said that where investments are made, the district tracks corresponding student success, but that the inverse is true of reductions.

"I grew up in a farm community, and basically, in my junior high, I had more access to foreign language learning than our kids currently do in our middle school. That's just not OK," Entwistle said. 

School Board member Kelly Murphy reminded councilors of the responsibility they all have to the students impacted by the 2010 cuts.

"Sometimes they have foreign language, sometimes they don't," Murphy said. "They have been in study halls if they're not in band all the way through middle school. They're not getting art. They don't get do-overs; this is it. They get 12 years in the schools, and now, the last four years,  they've had a sub-par education."

School Board member Jackie Perry, who was on the board when the 2010 cuts were made, said unfunded mandates from the state and School Department have been "devastating" on local taxpayers in recent years.

"Just because it cost $100 in 2010, it's going to cost $150 in 2015," she warned. "Not only are we trying to play catch up, it’s going to cost us more."

Councilor Jean Marie Caterina remained unsatisfied.

"I support programs directly related to academics, but I really want the School Department to be looking at administrative costs, overhead, anything not directly related to the teacher in the classroom," she said.

Scarborough High School was recently ranked the 10th best high school in Maine by U.S. News and World Report, despite having one of the state's highest student-to-teacher ratios, 15-to-1.

"That’s fantastic, and that’s a testament to what our teachers do with limited resources," Caiazzo said. "But when you look deeper into it, the gap between (No.) 10 and even (No. 5) is huge. And that’s really what we’re trying to accomplish."

Other major reductions in the school budget, to the tune of $380,000, came simply from better estimates of costs for health insurance, debt and energy.

Kate Bolton, School Department director of business and finance, confirmed the department successfully negotiated a new deal with the teachers union for the next fiscal year, in which employees' spouses who are eligible for health insurance at their own jobs will be required to take it there, rather than taking the School Department's plan. She estimated the mandate will save $175,000.

The School Board was scheduled to have a final reading and vote on the budget Thursday, May 1. If approved, the budget will go a final Town Council reading Wednesday, May 7.

The public budget validation referendum is scheduled for May 13. 

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or scarignan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.