Proposed Cape Elizabeth school budget would fuel 7.6% tax hike

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CAPE ELIZABETH — The School Board on April 10 unanimously adopted a $25.6 million budget for fiscal year 2019 that would raise the school portion of the tax rate more than 10 percent.

During a public forum the next morning, the board took questions and concerns from residents, including one regarding the high turnover rate for administrators in the School Department.

Workshops over the past two months resulted in a reduction of approximately $365,700 from interim Superintendent Howard Colter’s initial budget proposal, including $115,200 for improvements to Pond Cove Elementary School’s playground.

Board member John Voltz said this is not a “happy budget,” but was all the board could do to maintain current employment, programming, and quality of education.

The town’s current tax rate is $18 per $1,000 of valuation, $12.74 of which is the school’s portion. When combined with a proposed $12.3 million municipal budget, the school spending – if approved by the Town Council and ratified by voters in June – would contribute an overall $1.37, or 7.6 percent, increase in the property tax rate.

The board will present its proposal to the Town Council on Tuesday, April 24. The council will hold a public hearing May 7 before voting on the budget on May 14.

A cut of almost $875,000 in state funding – a 40 percent drop in revenue –contributed to the 3.1 percent increase from current spending.

“There’s more we wish we could do (but) the state has forced a revenue problem,” Voltz said April 10. “We were hit hard by it.”

According to School Board Chairwoman Susana Measelle Hubbs, Cape Elizabeth schools have lost nearly $2 million in state funding over the past three years.

Also driving the school budget is an 8.8 percent increase for health insurance, which Business Manager Catherine Messmer said was one of the department’s biggest costs.

Partially offsetting cuts to Colter’s proposal, the board added $60,000 to the budget for a new custodian at the high school and about $249,000 in engineering and architect fees for a feasibility study of improvements to all three schools.

Messmer said the firms the department has selected to work with – Colby Co. Engineering and Scott Simons Architects – initially quoted $760,000 for the study. However, when the department balked, they offered to reduce their fee to $249,000 to get the project to a bond referendum, tentatively slated for June 2019.

If the borrowing is rejected, Messmer said, the department would not have to pay the extra $511,000.

“If it passes, they will continue with the project,” she said.

After Tuesday’s vote, the board held two public forums on April 11. The first, at 9 a.m., attracted about 15 citizens, five of whom addressed the board.

Kevin Justh, of Spruce Lane, said he supported the budget and had the “unpopular opinion” that the School Department wasn’t spending enough. He said he’d rather see the department sort out which facility improvements were of the highest priority and pay for those “sooner, rather than later.”

On the other hand, Jerry Kneller, of Ivie Road, called the tax rate increase “outrageous” and said there is “ample cash” available in town to help reduce the deficit.

Board members replied that they don’t have influence over what the town does with its revenue sources, but encouraged Kneller to speak to the Town Council during its upcoming budget deliberations.

Cherie Gustafson, of Jewett Road, thanked the board for its work, but said she was concerned about the frequent turnover in school administration over the past few years.

Colter responded that the board could not discuss personnel matters, but they’re planning to meet with the Town Council in the near future to discuss a similar concern brought up by another resident and parent, Janet Villiotte, during Monday night’s council meeting.

In a memo sent to the council earlier this week, Villiotte said her research found that School Department has seen 22 administrators leave in the past six years, including two superintendents, two high school assistant principals, four middle school principals, and three Pond Cove principals.

According to Villiotte, former Pond Cove Principal Kelly Hasson received nearly $115,000 plus benefits when she left in June 2017. Former Cape Elizabeth Middle School Principal Mike Tracy, who also left last June, received between $87,000 and $116,000, plus benefits, during this fiscal year, she said.

Also concerning, Villiotte said, were the 31 executive sessions the board held in 2017 – most of which were called to discuss personnel matters. In comparison, she said, Yarmouth’s school committee held two last year.

According to Villiotte’s findings, approximately $4 million of co-mingled funds are reflected in a 2017 audit that revealed “significant deficiencies” in School Department accounting.

The council planned to hear from Jennifer Conners of the South Portland-based accounting firm, Runyon Kersteen Ouellette, on how to correct those items, but Conners was ill and unable to attend the April 9 meeting, so the discussion was postponed to May.

Council Chairwoman Jessica Sullivan said not all of Villiotte’s concerns were under the council’s purview to address, but was sure the School Board would like to respond.

“The council is the ultimate governing body and we are bound to respond,” she said.

Once the joint meeting is scheduled, it will be posted on the town’s website, Sullivan added. The Town Council and School Board had previously scheduled a meeting for April 12 to discuss the school’s budget, but Villiotte’s memo was not on the agenda.

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.