Scarborough board hopes reduced school budget will mollify voters

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SCARBOROUGH — The Board of Education reluctantly approved reducing the proposed school budget Wednesday, hoping voters would be sufficiently satisfied to pass the spending package on a second try later this month.

The board removed $236,000 from the proposed budget for fiscal 2018. Along with an additional $71,000 stripped from the proposed municipal budget, the projected increase in the property tax rate would be below 3 percent, which was the Town Council’s initial target.

In addition to the position of career academy coordinator, cuts included reducing a behavioral specialist from full time to just over part time; further cuts in both instructional supplies and professional development; reducing the amount proposed for athletic uniform replacements, and further reducing the hours for a part-time business secretary in the Athletic Department.

With a new proposed school budget of $47.1 million, property owners could see an increase in their taxes of 48 cents per $1,000 of valuation, for a new tax rate of $16.40.

But town and school leaders said Wednesday that with Scarborough expecting more state aid to education now that the state budget has been approved, the tax increase would likely be much lower.

The increased subsidy prompted Councilor Will Rowan to attempt to persuade councilors that no adjustments at all should be made to the school budget. The Town Council met in a special session prior to the School Board meeting Wednesday.

“Now that we know we have significant money coming (from the state), I feel like it’s inappropriate to cut the school or municipal budgets,” he said.

With the expected increase in state aid to education, Rowan argued, “we could put the school budget back out at the original amount for further consideration.” He said the increased funding from the state alone would reduce the tax rate increase to “2.99 percent or less.”

While other councilors said they appreciated Rowan’s “very compelling argument,” they also said too much is still unknown about just how much more Scarborough would receive from the state.

Councilors also said they had to listen to the voters, who rejected the initial $47.4 million school budget in a June 13 referendum.

“I 100 percent support the sentiment, but a vote was taken and it must be honored,” Councilor Bill Donovan said. “We have to honor the vote, so some cuts have to occur. I don’t want to risk a second no vote.”

In the end only Rowan and Councilor Kate St. Clair supported his motion to make no changes to either the school or municipal budgets.

At their meeting, School Board members thanked Rowan for his effort and said they, too, had hoped no additional cuts would be needed, since the state budget includes $162 million more for education.

School Board Chairwoman Kelly Murphy said requiring school budget cuts is “appalling and shameful,” particularly because “we don’t have the highest spending” and “have the lowest (tax) rate of all the surrounding communities.”

“It’s getting old to say we don’t how to handle money or to budget; we do,” she added. “We don’t have fluff. … Lack of revenue is the issue, and that we have no control over.”

Board member Jodi Shea said the new school budget amount reflects “thoughtful decision-making,” and she didn’t want anyone to be under the impression that the reductions won’t hurt.

“The superintendent has made small, strategic cuts, but these aren’t token cuts,” Shea said. “The community needs to understand that these cuts have major impacts and a ripple effect” for future years.

The most painful cut for the entire board was the decision by Superintendent Julie Kukenberger to postpone hiring a new career academy coordinator at the high school, which saves $75,000.

Although Kukenberger said Wednesday it’s a position the schools “desperately need” and “an area we really have to grow,” she felt it was necessary to leave the new position out of the budget to reduce the impact on existing programs.

“Some reductions were very easy to recommend,” she said, “while others were more challenging. The (idea) was not just to hit the goal, but evaluate the risk and impact both this year and going forward.”

Kukenberger said she wanted the new proposal to at least “be a step forward toward our vision.”

Councilors and School Board members consistently referred to the spending reductions as “cuts.” But during the time for public comment resident Larry Hartwell pointed out that even at $236,000 less than the budget defeated last month, the proposed school spending plan still represents an increase of $1.3 million over the 2017 fiscal year.

When it came time for the School Board to vote on the revised budget proposal, member Jackie Perry said she hoped it “would be acceptable, if not satisfactory” to the majority of voters.

Absentee ballots are now available for the second school budget validation referendum, slated for Tuesday, July 25. Polls will be open that day from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. at Town Hall.

Scarborough has a history of failed school budget referendums.

In 2015, voters rejected the budget twice. In 2012 it also took two attempts, and in 2013 there were three referendums before an education spending package was approved.

According to a legal opinion he received from the town attorney, Town Manager Tom Hall said, the School Department will function for now under the budget approved Wednesday night.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

Edited July 7 to correct that the interim budget is the one approved by the Town Council July 5.