SCARBOROUGH — The Town Council on Wednesday returned $180,000 to the third proposed school budget.
The council also unanimously eliminated the advisory question of too low, too high, or just right, from the third referendum.
Restoring $180,000 to the proposed $43.5 million operating budget would prevent cuts to school programs and services, including several extracurricular activities and clubs at Scarborough Middle School, Wentworth School and Scarborough High School.
On Tuesday, July 7, voters rejected a revised $43.3 million budget, which included a reduction of $500,000. School Board member Chris Caiazzo said only $320,000 could be absorbed without “negatively impacting core, academic programs and services that would be most detrimental to student learning.”
The third budget presented Wednesday still includes the reduction of $320,000. But Councilor Bill Donovan said the schools wouldn’t lose the extracurricular programs that would have been eliminated had the second referendum passed.
The district will also receive $885,000 more in state General Purpose Aid to Education than it previously anticipated, for a total of $4.6 million. Voters, therefore, would be responsible for paying $37.5 million of the operating budget through taxes.
Coupled with an additional $200,000 in excise tax revenue and the appropriation of $180,000 for the district, the new combined municipal and school budget would be approximately $57.8 million, requiring a property tax increase of about 2.8 percent.
Several students addressed the council during the public comment portion of the meeting Wednesday night. All implored councilors to increase the budget to avoid the elimination of clubs and sports.
Seth Jackson, president of the Scarborough High School Class of 2016 and a Model UN member, said, “I am a product of Scarborough schools. They’ve made me the person I am today.
“The experience I have had will not be attainable by future generations of students of Scarborough if this budget remains unchanged,” Jackson said. “Invest in your students. They are the future.”
School Board member Jacquelyn Perry said the implication that school officials are hiding money is insulting.
“Members of the Board of Education and our administrators are not liars or cheats,” she said. “… We have answered every question asked of this board about this budget. I am tired of councilors telling me it doesn’t matter when I try explaining something to them.
“We are now being accused of inciting parents and public because we will have to eliminate some activities and some athletics, but what are our choices?”
Resident Katy Foley asked rhetorically if people at the meeting were listening to themselves.
“I still hear people slinging insults at School Board members, at town councilors … this is not the kind of town that I want to live in,” Foley said. “There’s a process problem here, and that is very clear and apparent. I say we start (fixing) that as soon as we get through this.”
When councilors had the option to speak before voting on the first reading of the new budget, half of them remained silent.
“When we look at the conflict that has been created, we have to ask ourselves if being vocal and outspoken, as well as not participating, has contributed,” Councilor Shawn Babine said.
At the end of the meeting, after most people had left the council chambers, councilors agreed that offering an advisory question on the third referendum is no longer necessary.
Councilor Jessica Holbrook said it was “probably good for the first time or two,” but she didn’t “see a need” for it to be included on the third ballot.
Thursday morning, Town Manager Tom Hall said the entire budget process has been “a bit frustrating and confusing.”
“Despite all that effort,” he said, “we find ourselves continually being criticized.”
Probably one thing that all parties agree on, Hall said, is that “for one reason or another, the way we do it in Scarborough isn’t working. A community like this shouldn’t be having multiple budget votes.”
The key to the solution, recognizing there are necessary long-term improvements to be made, he said, is to “come together as a community and get past this. (We need to) get a budget in place … this is paralysis.”
The debate is forming a “deep division in the community that’s not healthy going forward,” Hall said.
As for the third referendum, “God help us if it fails,” he said. “I don’t know where we would go from there.”
The council’s second reading and vote on the budget will be Wednesday, July 22. The third public referendum is scheduled for Aug. 4. Absentee ballots are available from the town clerk’s office. They can be returned to the office, where early voting will also be available, starting July 23.