BRUNSWICK — The Town Council may get its wish for a budget with no property tax increase, but it remains to be seen if the mandate will come with a political cost.
A long-desired preschool program could be a casualty if the council adopts what is now a $53.8 million spending plan. The new program wasn’t included in the School Department’s original $33.7 million budget. However, School Board members and Superintendent Paul Perzanoski warned Monday that the council’s recent order to slash another $250,000 from the school spending plan would effectively divert federal stimulus funding that would’ve gone toward preschool start-up costs.
“The preschool program is in jeopardy,” Perzanoski told the council Monday.
Perzanoski’s comments preceded statements from two School Board members – two of just three residents to speak during the public hearing.
“The $250,000 in cuts you asked us to make, those really hurt,” said School Board Chairwoman Eileen Murphy, adding that a better dialog between the council and School Board is needed to avoid making last-minute cuts with long-term consequences.
The School Department originally proposed a budget with a 0.16 percent increase over this year by closing Hawthorne School a year early and eliminating 25 jobs through attrition. The department also avoided a larger increase thanks to more than $753,000 in Title 1 and IDEA funding expected to be allocated by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.
Perzanoski planned to use some of the ARRA funding for start-up of the preschool program – and to buffer against what is expected to be an even more difficult budget season next year.
But on Monday, Perzanoski said he has to use the ARRA money to meet the council’s directive to slash another $250,000 from this year’s budget. He warned that using that funding now would make the next two budget cycles more precarious because of the loss of tuition students from Durham and federal impact aid for students from families at Brunswick Naval Air Station.
The district is expected to lose 621 base-related students next year. It’s also planning to lose most of its Durham tuition students over the next three years because of Durham’s recent consolidation with Freeport and Pownal.
Durham this year paid approximately $1.12 million to send 140 students to Brunswick High School.
“We may be out of the woods this year,” Perzanoski said. “But I have grave concerns for the next two years.”
Perzanoski had equally ominous comments about the start-up of the preschool program, which he said, has been one of the most frequently raised issues since he was hired last year. While the program would eventually receive state subsidies, it needs funding for planning and launch costs.
Perzanoski added that the preschool program could potentially replace the town-run program. The town program this year briefly was on the chopping block until a group of parents rallied to save it.
It’s unclear if the preschool program will attract a similar lobbying effort prior to the council’s adoption of the budget, or voters’ validation of the school budget.
Perhaps in anticipation of that criticism, some councilors Monday expressed regret that the School Department was being asked to cut the $250,000.
“I feel really bad,” Councilor Karen Klatt said. “I didn’t realize how bad it was going to be on the school side.”
Councilor Joanne King, meanwhile, wanted it clear that the council didn’t ask the district to close Hawthorne early or to eliminate teaching positions.
“I’m afraid it looks like the Town Council has asked you to make all these cuts,” she told Perzanoski.
Perzanoski agreed the initial reductions were proposed by the schools. However, the reductions were in response to a previous council mandate to propose a combined budget with no more than a 2 percent property tax increase.
The town, meanwhile, used a combination of methods to meet its $250,000 mandate, including freezing pay increases for non-union employees ($30,000), street light expenses ($10,000) and reducing discretionary legal spending ($5,000).
The two largest items – bridge repairs on the Androscoggin Bike & Pedestrian Path ($70,000) and municipal meeting space ($55,000) – were not cuts, but a diversion of funding sources. Both projects will be funded through savings from construction of a new salt and sand shed, which came in far below original estimates.
Despite avoiding more difficult cuts, acting Town Manager Gary Brown said finding another $250,000 to cut from his proposed budget wasn’t easy. Brown said the pay freeze on non-union employees was particularly hard.
“(The non-union employees) will suffer that loss,” he said. “But that’s in lieu of eliminating a job.”