SCARBOROUGH — Town councilors on Wednesday set public hearings on the recall petitions of three School Board members and passed the first reading of a proposed fiscal year 2019 combined budget of $65 million.
They also decried the town’s level of discord and division.
“I’m really distressed about where we find ourselves,” Councilor Peter Hayes said. “I’ve never seen the community so divided, and we have some heavy lifting to do to move forward and get to a place (where we can have) civil discourse.”
Town Clerk Yolande Justice certified the recall petitions for School Board Chairwoman Donna Beeley and members Cari Lyford and Jodi Shea on April 6, saying the total number of valid signatures on each of the three petitions was 2,622.
Under the Town Charter, the council was required to accept the certified petitions and schedule public hearings. Even so, many councilors said Wednesday they felt the effort to remove the School Board members was a misuse of the recall process.
The public hearings for each petition are now scheduled for 6 p.m. April 25. Council Chairman Bill Donovan said each of the petitions would receive a separate hearing, but it made sense to consolidate them all into one meeting.
A citizen’s group called Road to Renewal is driving the recall effort and last week Paul Johnson, one of the petitioners, said the hope is to elect a School Board that will ultimately remove Superintendent of Schools Julie Kukenberger.
Johnson said those involved in the Road to Renewal movement believe Kukenberger and the board have demonstrated poor leadership and an unwillingness to listen to the community.
In response to the certification of the recall petitions, Beeley said “This is a sad day for our town and I fear that it will discourage anyone to seek elected office.”
A special election on the recall will likely be held in May, since the charter requires that a referendum vote be held within 30 days of the public hearing. Justice has said the election could cost as much as $5,000.
“As a councilor I have an obligation to uphold the charter, but with this vote I’m not picking who’s right and who’s wrong and I’m not supporting one side or the other,” Councilor Chris Caiazzo said in regard to approving the certification of the recall petitions.
However, he also said, “I’m not supporting what I feel is a gross misuse of the recall process and I certainly hope that those who are pushing this are just as adamant about being part of the solution.”
Councilor Jean-Marie Caterina agreed and also said the attempt to remove the School Board members is a misuse of the recall provision. “I am so disappointed in this town,” she said. “I just don’t get it.”
Councilor Katy Foley said she signed the recall petitions because she feels it’s important to have a recall process available. However, she also said, “I’m sorry it’s come to this. We need to find a better way to communicate. It’s disheartening (to see the rhetoric) on both sides of this issue.”
“This town is made up of a lot of good people and I have confidence we will bounce back, but the weeks ahead will be difficult,” Donovan added.
The vote on the budget was 5-2, with Hayes and Foley opposed. The majority of councilors were clear, though, that they also don’t support a proposed 4.19 percent increase in spending.
But, they said, passing the budget on first reading keeps the process moving and they’re confident that between now and May 16, when the final budget vote is scheduled, the spending increase will be at 3 percent or less, as originally mandated.
Several residents spoke about the budget Wednesday, with most urging the council not to accept the spending package, which includes $34.4 million on the municipal side and $44.9 million on the school side.
In reviewing specific line items listed on the budget, resident Ben Howard said he could see several areas where cuts could be made and told the council that “a lot more work could be done. We need (more) give and take to get to a budget that the town can accept.”
Paula O’Brien, who is also a resident, said she hopes the council “will stand behind (its) word and pass a budget with no more than a 3 percent increase. This town needs to cut back” and not buy what it can’t afford, she said.
Caiazzo, who is a member of the council’s Finance Committee, said “passing the budget on first reading is about moving the process forward. Not doing it would halt (budget deliberations) in their tracks.”
And, he argued, there are many more budget meetings to come, including a joint workshop with the School Board planned for mid-May.
“I’m fully convinced that we will not end up at 4.19 percent. (I’m sure) we’ll come up with a compromise that’s best for the town,” he added.