Pro-school campaign urges rejection of Brunswick school budget

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BRUNSWICK — In a decision that intensified friction with the School Board, the Town Council voted 8-0 on May 25 to send a $37.4 million 2018 school budget to voters on June 13.

The budget reflects a 0.5 percent reduction in school spending and would increase taxes by 3 percent.

The action prompted a former two-term School Board member to launch a campaign to reject the budget in protest to the cuts.

Councilor John Perreault was absent from the vote, where the council also adopted a $62.2 million total budget that will fund new positions in the Public Works and Recreation Departments, and improvements to the town’s roads and facilities management plan.

The proposed school budget was reduced by $1.3 million over this year’s spending, and eliminates nearly a dozen teaching and administrative positions, as well as programs like freshman sports.

The council also created a plan for how to delegate funding if the Legislature restores additional education aid to the district – a plan that many on the School Board felt was unfair.

Several members of the board – including those who supported the previous night’s 5-4 vote to accede the council’s demands for another $250,000 in cuts – said they are unsure if they will vote in favor the budget.

At a May 17 meeting, the board rejected the council’s request for $500,000 in cuts and instead proposed a compromise to save $250,000 by using the town’s reserve balance.

On May 18, the council denied the request, and agreed to allocate the first $400,000 restored from the state to school programs. The next $200,000 would go to offset taxes, and any remaining funds will go to the School Department’s reserve fund, which Superintendent Paul Perzanoski said is already $800,000 “in the hole.”

Board member Corey Perreault said she voted to continue to make cuts for fear that the council would impose its own cuts or withhold greater subsidies if the board didn’t act.

“Though I am not 100 percent committed either way, at this point I am leaning towards voting against (the budget),” she wrote in an email May 26. “I wasn’t in favor of the budget, but felt like we had no other choice.”

Chairwoman Joy Prescott expressed similar sentiment.

“Several councilors made it clear that they wanted to see at least $500,000 reduced (further) from school budget and preferred to direct additional state funding towards lowering the tax increase, rather than restoring funding for our schools,” she wrote in an email May 26. “Given that context, I was very concerned about the risk that the council might make further reductions or restrict our ability to use additional state funding.”

Councilor Steve Walker had tried to amend the warrant article pertaining to the funding delegation during the council’s May 25 discussion, but was told by Town Manager John Eldridge that he couldn’t because the School Board had already signed it the night before.

In what was ultimately a symbolic gesture, the council voted 7-1 against the amendment, with only Walker supporting it.

Ben Tucker agreed with Prescott, and singled out Walker’s motion to suggest that the council’s decision not to restore the full $500,000 of cuts was punishment for the board’s request to compromise.

His analysis echoed board member Elizabeth Sokoloff’s May 17 comments that the council’s was being “punitive.”

When asked if that was the case, Town Councilor Jane Millett said, “I’m not going to characterize the perception of the School Board members,” suggesting that the board shouldn’t have assumed it would receive the entirety of any potential reimbursement.

Residents will vote on the school budget June 13. It has passed every year in recent history by an average two-thirds margin.

Given the small turnout for June elections, Rich Ellis, who stepped down from the School Board in December, said he is actively campaigning for voters to reject the budget in protest.

After the May 25 meeting, he said he thinks he needs to convince approximately 200 voters; he created a Facebook page to publicize the effort, which as of Tuesday had received 75 likes.

At that meeting – during which he publicly announced his opposition and had a heated exchange with Millett – Ellis said he objected to idea that the council reduced the school budget in anticipation of voters also deciding June 13 whether to approve a $28 million bond to build a new elementary school.

He said he still supports passage of the bond, but doesn’t think the board’s plans to build a new school should interfere with operational costs, which pay for teacher salaries and educational programs.

“I think it’s terrible to trade teachers for a building,” he said, noting that had he known the school budget might shrink in response to the board’s request for a new school, he wouldn’t have supported the bond while he was on the School Board.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Brunswick Town Hall

School budget, bond go to voters

BRUNSWICK — Voters on June 13 will decide whether to approve a $37.4 million school budget and a $28 million bond to fund a new elementary school.

Polls will be open 7 a.m.-8 p.m. at Brunswick Junior High School, 65 Columbia Ave.

Absentee ballots are available at Town Hall, 85 Union St., and can also be requested online. Hours and extended drop-off times are posted on the town clerk’s page on the town website.

— Callie Ferguson

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.