'No way to avoid services, programs' after Scarborough school budget fails

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SCARBOROUGH — The 10 percent of voters who cast ballots on the $39 million school budget for fiscal year 2014 were clear: it was too high and they didn’t want it.

Tuesday’s 898-643 vote showed 58 percent of voters against the budget, marking the second time an education budget has been rejected in town since the referendum process began in 2009.

“It’s too high. I just think taxes have gotten a little carried away. If we have to cut back, so should the town,” Marc Milliard said after voting Tuesday morning.

In a nonbinding question, 929 voters, or 60 percent, said the budget was too high, while 264 voters, or 17 percent, found it acceptable, and 334 people, or 21 percent, found the budget too low. A question about holding referendums on school budgets for the next three years was approved, 1,186 to 325.

The vote leaves School Board Chairwoman Christine Massengill and School Superintendent George Entwistle III scrambling to revise the budget, but unconvinced the vote was a reflection on department staff and operations.

“I would be lying if I didn’t say I was really terribly disappointed,” Entwistle said Wednesday. “But this was a referendum of the financial implications, not the work being done.”

Two months and $2 million have come and gone since Entwistle introduced his budget March 13, but Massengill said more cuts will require difficult choices.

“There is no way to avoid services and programs,” she said.

As passed by Town Councilors on May 1, the school budget presented a $1.5 million total increase, with $2.8 million needed in additional property tax revenues to offset a potential $1.6 million loss in subsidies and a requirement to pay pension obligations now funded by the state.

Had it passed, the budget would have caused the bulk of an anticipated 8 percent increase in the property tax rate, from the current $13.80 per $1,000 of assessed value to $14.89.

The municipal operations, capital improvements and the town share of Cumberland County operations were approved by the Town Council on May 1.

State law requiring referendum votes for annual school budgets also requires school boards to create and approve a new budget within 10 to 45 days after the first referendum, and then conduct another referendum. Town Councilors must also approve the revised budget.

In 2010, voters rejected a $34.9 million budget in May, then approved one that shifted $100,000 from reserve funds to the budget to reduce the tax burden.

“It is just another thing we need to work through,” Massengill said. “I really did think it would pass, that we had cut enough and that people understood a reinvestment in education was critical.”

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

Sidebar Elements

Bella Lewis plays at the Scarborough polls Tuesday during the school budget referendum. Her mother, Cheryl Lewis, supported the $39 million budget, but was in the minority when it was rejected 898-634.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.