Scarborough school budget referendum: Take 3

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SCARBOROUGH — The school year began Aug. 29 without a budget.

But voters will get another chance to validate a spending plan Tuesday, Sept. 5, in the third school budget referendum for fiscal 2018, which began July 1.

Town councilors unanimously approved the latest budget Aug. 16, when $50,000 was deducted from the $47.1 million last proposed.

On June 13, 57 percent of voters rejected a $47.4 million proposal, and on July 25 they voted down the $47.1 million budget, 1,930 to 1,847.

To subtract the $50,000 mandated by the council, the School Board on Aug. 17 postponed hiring a high school improvement strategist.

Superintendent of Schools Julie Kukenberger made the recommendation to put off hiring a strategist, who would have been tasked with analyzing data to help determine what learning and instructional adjustments at the high school would be beneficial to students. The schools will share two improvement strategists, one who was also recently hired as a K-2 principal. Teacher leaders will be tapped to help to bring improvements to the table as well.

Subtracting $50,000 would require a local tax contribution of $42.2 million – a 6.7 percent increase over the fiscal 2017 budget, due mainly to a 17.42 percent decrease in non-tax revenue, including the loss of about $1.4 million in state subsidy money.

The tax increase for homeowners had been estimated at 2.91 percent in the overall tax bill.

But at a Finance Committee meeting Thursday, Aug. 31, officials said final valuations were lower than expected, so the new tax rate will be be $16.49 per $100,000 — an increase of 3.58 percent.

For owners of a $300,000 home, the annual tax bill will be nearly $5,000, which includes municipal, school and county taxes.

Residents have rejected the budget seven times in the last six years, including twice this year. In 2015, residents also defeated it twice. It took two attempts in 2012, and three referendums in 2013 before voters passed the budget.

Voting takes place on Sept. 5 from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. at the Municipal Building, 259 U.S. Route 1. Absentee ballots must be turned in before polls close on Sept. 5.

“This is a sound budget. It is a projected 2.77 percent increase in expenditures,” Kukenberger said. “We have really analyzed many aspects of this budget while creating the budget. There are some new and innovative ideas in the budget without adding to existing costs for residents.”

Some residents, including members of Scarborough Maine Advocates for Reasonable Taxes, or SMARTaxes, who have formed a political action committee, say continually rising taxes are the reason they do not support the budget.

Steve Hanly of SMARTaxes noted Friday the nearly 3.6 percent increase is more than the overall tax rate increase associated with the school budget that voters overwhelmingly rejected on June 13.

“The timing of this disclosure is very troubling,” he said. “It means that the 1,800 citizens who already cast absentee votes did not have the benefit of the crucial new tax rate information.”

Kukenberger, who was hired in April 2016, said Scarborough’s increasing property values were calculated into the equation the state used when determining subsidies this year. As a result, Scarborough received less from the state, straining the school budget.

“As long as Scarborough continues to thrive compared to cities around us, the expenses will fall upon the taxpayers and it will take two to three years for us to adjust to the change and our way of thinking.  But the bottom line is, for us to see more money from our state, it will mean that we won’t be thriving as a community, which no one wants to see,” Kukenberger said.

But opponents believe the schools should have anticipated the reduction in state spending.

“In Scarborough’s case, we have known that our share of state education aid was declining for several years,” Hanly said. “In fact, the Town Council had warned in past years of an approaching ‘fiscal cliff.’”

Hanly said despite the councils’ concern, “the schools continued to add positions and programs anyway.

“The end result is that taxpayers are now expected to pay 6.7 percent more in taxes for the schools than last year,” he said. “This is not a sustainable level of increase.”

Supporters of Scarborough Schools, a group created in 2013, have actively campaigned on behalf of passing the budget.

“We think it is important to dispel the misperception that our schools are overspending,” said Paul Stratis on behalf of the group. “Per-pupil spending in Scarborough is lower than most surrounding towns, teachers are paid less than most surrounding towns and our administrative costs are lower than most surrounding towns. These are just a few examples of how Scarborough is already doing more with less.”

SMARTaxes members say school spending needs to be cut more than $50,000.

“While some community members may think that the $50,000 adjustment to a $48.8 million expense budget to get to a 6.7 percent increase in school taxes was enough, many others considered it to be far smaller than what was needed,” Hanly said. “It is also worth noting that even after the $50,000 adjustment, the proposed operating expense budget is still $1.3 million more than last year’s.”

Stratis countered that the budget being presented to voters Sept. 5 provides for less than level services.

“There has already been more than $200,000 worth of programs, positions and services cut from what the schools had last year,” he said. “We feel strongly that any additional cuts will harm our students and negatively impact the quality of education that we are able to offer in Scarborough.”

Kukenberger, who said she has already been planning for next year’s budget, said, “In the next two years as your superintendent, I am committed to controlling spending, controlling our increases and expenditures while we adjust to what it means to be a minimum receiver.”

Hanly said SMARTaxes hopes Kukenberger “can make significant expense realignments during fiscal 2018 that will bring revenues and expenses into better balance and avoid the fiscal 2019 budget process being as painful as this year’s.

“Unless the schools take meaningful action during the current year, we are doomed to repeat this contentious budget approval cycle again next year.  And we all want to avoid that.”

Stratis said the town has to make education a priority.

“With a tax rate that is lower than many of our neighboring towns,” he said, “we feel that it is important for our community to do what we can to support our children by maintaining quality education and voting yes in support of our school budget.”

Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or Follow her on Twitter @melaniesochan.

200 ballots initially uncounted in 2nd budget vote

SCARBOROUGH — Town Clerk Yolande Justice said her office is in the process of evaluating protocols for hand-counting ballots after 200 uncounted ballots from the July 25 school budget special referendum were discovered.

In a memo to Town Manager Tom Hall dated Aug. 21, Justice said her office would work to “identify additional procedures and safeguards to ensure this does not happen again in future elections.”

The recently discovered ballots don’t change the outcome of the second school budget validation referendum because they were evenly split, 100-100, Hall said in an Aug. 30 press release.

But the vote tally did change, Hall and Justice said, which requires the Town Council to re-certify the result of the vote on the proposed $47.1 million school spending package.

The budget failed by an updated tally of 2,030 to 1,947.

Hall said he expects the council to re-certify the July 25 vote during its meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 6, a day after voters will go to the polls for the third time in an attempt to pass a school budget for fiscal 2018.

Justice said the missed ballots were discovered earlier this month when her office began the mandatory process of matching the number of voters checked in with the number of ballots cast.

— Kate Irish Collins