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Public urges councilors to back Scarborough school budget

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Public urges councilors to back Scarborough school budget

SCARBOROUGH — A revised fiscal year 2014 school budget of no more than $38.8 million faces a June 5 council vote and June 11 public referendum after it was forwarded through a first reading at a special Town Council meeting Wednesday night.

The revised budget, which cuts $54,000 from the budget rejected by an 898-643 public vote on May 14, was passed by the School Board at its May 23 meeting.

Ultimately, town voters could see a budget reduced by as much as $563,500 from the first referendum, based on a list of tiered cuts prepared by the School Department. The cuts, in total, would meet the council guideline of no more than 3 percent increases for expenditures.

Following the June 5 Town Council budget vote, School Board members will meet June 6 to vote on the budget amount set by councilors. The council has final say in the amount budgeted for education, but no line-item control.

In almost 75 minutes of public comment Wednesday, councilors heard near-unanimous approval for the current budget and were sometimes asked to add even more money to help stop what some speakers said was the deterioration of the local schools.

"I have just seen it erode, erode and erode more, and it is very disheartening," Broadturn Road resident Nancy Jones said.

The $54,000 removed after the budget failed at the polls will affect upgrades at the library, and stipends and supplies for extra-curricular clubs.

If councilors trim more money, middle school athletic programs will be reduced or eliminated, the district will not provide transportation to sports team practices, and a special education ed tech position will be cut.

Deeper into the proposed tiers are reductions to foreign language programs for third- through fifth-graders at Wentworth School, and the loss of a guidance counselor for elementary school students.

Parents supporting the budget and looking for program restorations noted younger students are already bearing the brunt of program cuts from recent years.

Hunter Point Road resident Tina Pettingill said she could not believe her son did not have homework, then learned he had so many free periods because of academic cuts at the middle school that he was able to do his homework during the school day. She also noted parents are paying increased fees and are required to buy supplies like facial tissues for classrooms.

A consistent plea made to councilors was to avoid thinking the rejection of the first budget, which had been pared to just under $39 million from an initial $41.37 million, was a true consensus, because voter turnout was only 10 percent.

"Tonight's turnout really reflects how parents feel," Kara O'Brien of Woodfield Drive said.

Beech Ridge Road resident Dave Green counted himself among the residents who could not afford another increase in property taxes, and suggested those who wanted to pay more for education donate directly to the School Department.

The school budget seeks $34.7 million in local property tax revenue, an increase of about $2.6 million from the current budget. The district faces a potential loss of $1.6 million in state subsidies and a requirement to pay pension obligations now met by the state. The final effect of state funding will not be known until the biennial budget is passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Paul LePage.

While expressing his support for the budget, and for the one rejected two weeks ago, former School Board Chairman Bob Mitchell still had some sharp criticisms about the level of involvement by local parents and the lack of financial support for the Scarborough Education Association, which provides grants to teachers.

Noting how unhappy parents and students were when asked to pay an annual $50 student parking fee at Scarborough High School, Mitchell wondered why there seemed to be little understanding of how tax increases troubled older residents in town.

"If you are not willing to invest yourself, how can you go to a senior citizen and ask them to pay their fair share?" he asked.

Yet the overriding sentiment heard by councilors Wednesday was that reducing the school budget more would have both immediate and long-term consequences that would not be easily reversed.

"There comes a point where cost cutting goes too far and cuts at the core infrastructure," warned Paul Koziell, a parent and Lilian Way resident who also served as chairman of the Wentworth School Building Committee.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.