Scarborough council sends $500K school budget cut to voters

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SCARBOROUGH — After failed attempts at amendments, two recesses and one tie vote, town councilors Wednesday proposed a revised school budget.

The fiscal 2016 spending plan is $500,000 less than the one voters rejected June 9. It goes to a budget validation referendum on July 7.

With Councilors Bill Donovan and Jean-Marie Caterina dissenting, the council by a 4-2 vote approved a School Department operating budget of $43.3 million. Councilor Kate St. Clair was absent.

The proposed budget uses $38.3 million in property tax revenue, and would mean an overall property tax rate increase of just under 5 percent, to $15.82 per $1,000 of assessed value. The budget voters rejected proposed a tax rate of $15.97.

Owners of properties valued at $300,000 would see an annual tax increase of $216. 

“We have explored many options in terms of expenses and revenue adjustments,” School Board member Chris Caiazzo told the council.

He said about $320,000 could be cut from the budget without “negatively impacting core, academic programs and services that would be most detrimental to student learning.”

But attempting to close the additional $180,000 gap, per the council’s request, could not be done without affecting programs and services, Caiazzo said. 

Pulling those remaining funds from the proposed budget, Caiazzo said, could mean elimination of many after-school programs, including chorus, jazz, band, theater and the yearbook club at Scarborough Middle School; all clubs at the Wentworth School, and Key Club, Model UN, wrestling, fall cheerleading, tennis, and all band activities at Scarborough High School.

Some residents doubted the School Board’s sincerity.

“This is the biggest crock of baloney I’ve heard in my life,” resident Dan Green said. “Don’t tell me they can’t make do with what (they’re being given).”

Wallace Fengler told the council he’s 75 and still has to work to pay taxes. He asked the council to consider his interests because the School Department doesn’t.

School Board Chairwoman Donna Beeley said a state program like the Homestead Exemption should support residents who have trouble paying taxes. But letting this deficiency impact education “is just wrong,” she said.

Resident Stacey Newman, who has two young children, also pleaded with the council to not cut $500,000 from the budget. “I feel like I am the Lorax and I speak for the trees, I speak for the children. $500,000 will cut a lot of services,” Newman said.

Councilor Bill Donovan, in an effort to reduce the burden on the School Department, moved to amend the reduction that was approved at a first reading on June 17.

Donovan said $500,000 would still be reduced from the budget, but proposed the schools only contribute $320,000. Instead, the town would take $83,000 from the department’s undesignated surplus, which would effectively deplete the account, and use money the department expects to save over the year to make up the rest of $180,000 gap.

Caterina agreed. “It makes sense to me (to pull) the money out of the fund balance rather than out of programming,” she said. 

But Councilor Peter Hayes advised against Donovan’s proposal. “Next year, even if we start with a level budget, we’re going to start 2 percent in the hole (because of the loss of reserves).” 

Council Chairwoman Jessica Holbrook echoed that sentiment. “All we’re doing is plugging the (approximate $180,000) hole with rainy-day money, and we will be dealing with the same thing next year,” she said.

Donovan’s motion failed 3-3, with Councilors Shawn Babine, Donovan and Caterina in favor, and Councilors Ed Blaise, Hayes and Holbrook opposed.

The second school budget validation referendum will be Tuesday, July 7. Polls at Town Hall will be open from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Absentee ballots are now available, and must be returned by the time polls close.

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.