Scarborough, South Portland face school budget challenges

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SCARBOROUGH — With difficulty passing budgets in the past several years, recent turmoil over the recall of three School Board members and the resignation of a popular principal, Scarborough residents are probably wary of another budget fight stretching through the summer.

Although less dramatic, South Portland residents are considering a school budget that proposes an increase of 4 percent that was described as “challenging” by the superintendent.

Both South Portland and Scarborough face rising costs and higher taxes as residents prepare to vote June 12 on fiscal year 2019 school budgets that would take effect July 1.

Resident Jess Libby said at Tuesday’s Scarborough Board of Education meeting she is exhausted and tired of fighting, and hopes the town will pass the budget so residents can enjoy living in Scarborough for the summer and make friends with their neighbors again.

Board of Education member Jackie Perry said Wednesday she doesn’t know if the budget will be validated, saying different factions in town have been vocal about not supporting it, but for different reasons. She said members of the Road to Renewal group, which backed the recall effort, have said they oppose the budget, while others assert the budget is just too high.

Perry said Scarborough is the fifth or sixth wealthiest town in the state, but still cannot seem to pass a school budget on the first vote. “We’re land rich, but don’t necessarily have rich people in town,” she said.

“It’s a shame, the students will suffer. Quite frankly, I don’t know how it will shake out,” Perry said.

Paul Johnson of Road to Renewal said Perry’s assessment is accurate in that some supporters of the group want to hijack the budget as a tactic. He said the group leadership, however, is remaining neutral in budget discussions, and not campaigning for passage or rejection. He said some members support the budget while others will vote against it, and there is no consensus.

Johnson said the budget is a distraction from Road to Renewal’s message about transparency and leadership, and the issues are getting conflated.

Johnson also said, however, that he is willing to predict the budget will not pass, given the climate in town.

The net budget proposal of $44.9 million seeks an additional $2.5 million in taxes next year, a nearly 6 percent increase, although the increase in expenditures is only 2.9 percent. Superintendent Julie Kukenberger in April said it covers only essential services.

The budget is driven by the increasing needs of students who require individualized programming and services – an increase of $375,000 – as well as an additional kindergarten teacher at Pleasant Hill School due to an enrollment increase – a cost of $75,000 – and an increase in salaries and benefits for staff.

Kukenberger said those salaries and benefits account for 74 percent of the budget.

Rising costs for health care that came in late in the budget process forced the board to decide how to absorb an additional $41,000. To offset the cost without raising more money, the board voted Tuesday to defer replacing administration laptop computers and some kitchen equipment, and to reduce a technology equipment account.

Reductions in the budget include two teaching positions at the middle school, as well as a position at Wentworth Intermediate School, all due to declining enrollment.

The superintendent said some services would be expanded, including introducing foreign languages to fifth-graders and expanding general music education to the eighth grade.

The school budget referendum vote is Tuesday, June 12, at Scarborough High School, from 7 a.m-8p.m.

South Portland

Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin presented a fiscal year 2019 budget in April that would raise South Portland taxes by nearly 4 percent – even after more than $400,000 in proposed staff positions were left unfunded.

Like Scarborough, the budget referendum does not include an advisory question about whether the spending proposal is too high, too low or adequate.

Kunin, in an email about his $50 million proposal, said it was a challenging document to develop, because non-tax revenues are expected to be down more than 10 percent due to a reduction in state subsidy. According to Kunin, the School Department is expecting $6.1 million, which is about $800,000 less than this year.

Kunin explained in an earlier interview that the state allocation is based on two factors: property valuation and enrollment. The schools had 19 percent of the total cost of education paid for by the state last year. This year, the city is facing a 3 percent drop in aid, which is significant, he said.

The superintendent said the loss of state aid will in part be offset because the state, in a change to the way vocational education is funded, will pay South Portland’s $370,000 share of funding for the regional Portland Arts and Technology High School.

An increase in expenses has been held to 1.7 percent, but due to the reduction in revenue, the result is a proposed 3.9 percent increase in the tax rate, which, according to Kunin, is much higher than the School Department would like.

The budget is up 1.7 percent from this year’s $49.2 million, and the amount to be raised by taxes is $42 million. Another $7 million would come from the department’s fund balance and other sources, such as athletic sponsorships and tuition payments.

Taxes are expected to increase $1.6 million to cover the budget, according to Kunin’s estimates, or a 3.9 percent increase.

Positions first left unfunded, but were added back into the budget before board approval, include an assistant athletic director, a middle school resource officer, and two educational technician positions at the elementary school.

Regular instruction costs are up the most, at 6.5 percent, followed by an increase in special education costs, up 4.1 percent.

Regular instruction costs make up 41 percent of the budget, with special education absorbing 19 percent. Debt service and facilities maintenance each make up about 9 percent of the pie, followed by student and staff support.

Voters overwhelmingly approved the current, $49 million school budget last June. It was an increase of $1.2 million, or 2.4 percent, over the previous year.

Polls on June 12 will be open from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. at four locations: the Boys and Girls Club at 169 Broadway, American Legion Post 35 at 413 Broadway, the South Portland Community Center at 21 Nelson Road and the Redbank Community center on MacArthur Circle.

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JulietteLaaka.

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