SAD 51 board, Cumberland council spar over proposed school budget

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CUMBERLAND — The School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors on Monday strongly defended its proposed fiscal year 2019 budget against calls from the Town Council to find ways to reduce spending.

The SAD 51 board unanimously approved a $37.3 million budget, which now goes to two votes by residents of Cumberland and North Yarmouth.

The decision followed a statement from Chairwoman Gigi Sanchez, who stressed the time that went into creating a budget that supports the needs of students while trying to reduce the burden on taxpayers. She also criticized a Town Council resolution, which the board did not officially receive until Tuesday morning.

The document, which remains unsigned, will be discussed at the Town Council’s meeting on Monday, May 14, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.

The budget – which is available at msad51.org – goes to a district meeting at Greely High School at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 17, and then to a budget validation referendum on June 12.

“As a board member, our first commitment is to the schools,” Sanchez said. “And more specifically, to the education and learning of our children.”

She said next year’s proposed budget, up 3.8 percent from current spending, reflects the community’s commitment to education. “The vast majority” of that hike stems from salaries and benefits, Sanchez said.

As the schools excel, the towns’ property values increase accordingly, with people moving in for the schools and open spaces, she said. She acknowledged residents who struggle with taxes as those values rise, and the difficulty of finding significant savings while maintaining a strong school district.

“But when we are faced with unfunded mandates, but also initiatives where we feel this district wants to bring their kids in learning, we feel that the 3.8 (percent) is absolutely responsible,” she said.

Constructive and continued communication with Cumberland and North Yarmouth is critical in addressing the “competing needs,” and usually occurs, Sanchez said.

“But recently,” she added, “communications with the town of Cumberland have gone awry.”

She referred to Cumberland officials on April 9 blaming SAD 51 for the town’s overall tax increase, which prompted Sanchez and Superintendent of Schools Jeff Porter to meet with Town Manager Bill Shane and council Chairman Mike Edes.

“We left that meeting with the understanding that where individual councilors and boards of directors may have differing opinions about the budget, we would not use our respective platforms as a bully pulpit,” Sanchez said.

But that understanding is incorrect, she added, saying she learned shortly afterward of the Town Council’s intention to “pass a resolution in some way not supporting our budget.”

The resolution’s “true significance is in the fact that we, under the structure of the charter of Cumberland, and the local form of governance, the schools are an independent body,” Sanchez said. “The town councilmen are not elected to come in and comment on our budget. We work with them, we take their feedback.”

In its resolution, the Town Council states it “supports and values” the quality of education and schools, which attract young families. But the panel “is also sensitive to the fact that many residents of the Town have limited or fixed incomes that make them vulnerable to tax increase,” and “recent MSAD 51 assessment increases have placed a significant burden on many members of the community.”

The average Cumberland resident is nearly 51, and almost 75 percent of the town’s homes do not have children in school, the resolution adds, acknowledging that the council recognizes the impact that continued state funding losses have on the district.

The School Department’s projected $11.3 million in revenue for next year is down 5.6 percent ($668,000) from the current year. The decline is due primarily to a $442,000 loss in state subsidy ($11.3 million down to $10.9 million), which in the last three years has declined by more than $1 million, Porter has said.

The town itself has lost more than $500,000 in state revenue-sharing the past five years, the solution notes.

The resolution concludes with the council requesting that the SAD 51 board “conduct an additional review” of its proposed budget “to determine if there are any services or programs that could be delayed or reduced in some manner in order to lessen the impacts of the proposed school assessment” to Cumberland in fiscal 2019.

“This was not an easy decision by us,” Edes said in an interview Tuesday. “Any time you oppose the work of another committee within the same town … is very tough. But … we feel (the proposed school budget increase) is so harmful to most of the residents in town.”

He noted, too, that the first full impact of debt service from the Greely Center for the Arts – under construction on the Greely High School campus – is coming in fiscal year 2021. In November 2016, when SAD 51 voters approved borrowing as much as $9.5 million for the project, the impact of the increase on the tax bill for a $300,000 home was to be $9 in Cumberland and $12 in North Yarmouth in 2019 and 2020, and $69 in Cumberland and $84 in North Yarmouth in 2021.

“When that hits … combined with these huge increases that the school’s proposing, a lot of people are going to have to make decisions whether they want to remain in this town or not,” Edes said.

The fiscal year 2019 SAD 51 budget would increase property taxes by $290 on a Cumberland home assessed at $350,000, and by $329 to a North Yarmouth home of that value.

“I respect the council’s opinion on this matter,” Porter said Tuesday after reading the resolution. “They are correct, though, that the work of putting together the SAD budget is the SAD Board of Directors’ responsibility and not the council’s responsibility.”

“The responsibilities as outlined in the (Cumberland town) charter need to be kept independent of each other, and this resolution makes that line a little bit less clear,” Porter added.

“The Board is disappointed that the Town Council still intends to pursue the resolution,” Sanchez said in an email Tuesday. “It is inappropriate for the Town to do so. In the hope that the Town Council reconsiders this path, we will wait until after their meeting on May 14th to respond to the final resolution.”

Residents at the May 17 town meeting-style district budget gathering have the opportunity to vote spending items up and down through motions from the floor. The final amount from that meeting goes to the polls for a June 12 referendum.

Sanchez asked all voters, whether they support the budget or not, to “please go to that meeting so it is a representative meeting.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Gigi Sanchez, chairwoman of the School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors, on Monday defended the district’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget. Her sentiments were in response to a Cumberland Town Council resolution calling for SAD 51 to find further cuts in its spending plan.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.