SCARBOROUGH — After narrowly shooting down the first budget proposal last month, Scarborough voters just barely approved the reduced $41.9 million fiscal year 2015 school budget on Tuesday by a 1,598 to 1,413 vote.
The 3,011 voters represented a turnout of about 20 percent.
South Portland voters approved their fiscal year 2015 $44.8 million school budget by a 1,127 to 530 vote.
The Scarborough budget would impose a maximum 2.9 percent property tax increase next year. At the most, the town mil rate is expected to increase 43 cents to $15.20 per $1,000 of assessed value from the current rate of $14.77.
The impact on a home worth $300,000 would be around $129 more next year. The final tax rate will be determined next month or early August after the valuation of town properties is complete.
In a separate, nonbinding question, 1,446 voters indicated that they thought the education budget was too high, and 953 said they thought it was too low.
The approved $41.9 million budget is about $2 million less than the $43.4 million budget Superintendent of School George Entwistle proposed back in March, but is still around a $2 million increase in spending from last year.
This was the town’ second school budget validation after voters rejected a $42.3 million budget proposal 1,169 to 1,013 on May 13, a difference of only 156 votes.
In response, the Town Council voted to reduce the budget by an additional $324,000 over the course of two meetings before the second vote.
Councilors, who have been consistently split on whether the budget was too high or low, begrudgingly met in the middle to produce the $41.9 million budget total that would “maintain level services” at the school.
The Town Council has authority over the school budget’s bottom line before it goes to voters, but cannot determine which line items should be reduced.
The budget debate is consistently a contentious one in Scarborough, as last year’s budget went to three referendums before it was finalized. But councilors attested that this year has been especially heated.
“I’m happy it passed, but I just think the whole situation is ridiculous,” Councilor Jean Marie Caterina said Wednesday. “Every year it seems to get more and more divisive.”
She said she had already received an influx of emails Wednesday morning from elderly residents concerned they will not be able to afford their taxes next year.
School Board finance committee Chair Chris Caiazzo was relieved to see the budget finally pass, but worried for where to make up the latest round of reductions. Much has already been taken from the originally proposed $1 million investment in new technology and arts programs, which school officials have repeatedly insisted the school desperately needs.
He said details of where reductions will be taken have not been finalized, but confirmed that some athletics and extracurricular activities would feel the impact. He said improvements to middle school language arts would likely be retained, and the school administration will meet in coming weeks to further analyze program reductions.
“It didn’t turn out exactly as hoped, but we certainly were able to avoid a more serious reduction,” he said Wednesday.
He hopes the board will improve communications to the Town Council to avoid multiple rounds of budgeting in the future.
The recently formed group Scarborough Citizens for Sensible Taxes hosted an informational booth outside polls at the high school Tuesday, and said in a press release they added 200 new members.
“There is clearly a large group of Scarborough citizens who want to get a better understanding of how their tax dollars are being spent,” Steve Hanley, co-founder of the group, said in the release. “And by next year, we hope to be able to provide that information.”
By contrast, the $44.8 million South Portland education budget was readily approved with a voter turnout of about 8 percent.
The municipal budget for fiscal year 2015 has not been approved yet by the City Council, but figures from city finance director Greg L’Heureux suggest a likely property tax increase of 3.1 percent next year.
The current tax rate of $16.70 per $1,000 of assessed value could increase to $17.22, he estimated. The tax rate includes the education and municipal budgets as well as the city share for Cumberland County operations.
“We are very appreciative of our community and their on-going support for education in South Portland,” Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin said Wednesday.