School concerns dominate Falmouth budget hearing

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FALMOUTH — A proposed fiscal year 2020 budget of nearly $54 million could add 52 cents to the tax rate, representing a nearly 4% increase in spending, according to information provided by the town last week.

The Town Council will hold a final vote on the 2020 municipal, school and county spending package at 7 p.m. April 22.

A handful of comments at an April 3 budget hearing all involved the School Department budget. The budget approved by the School Board totals $38.7 million, an increase of about $1.8 million, according to Dan O’Shea, finance director for the schools.

For a home valued at $300,000 the school budget alone would add $121 to the annual tax bill, O’Shea said.

In speaking about the school budget last week, resident John Winslow said while he wants to provide “the best education our kids can get,” he also questioned the spending increases. Winslow said he’s not sure where the money is going if school enrollment is staying approximately level, as school officials have stated.

Budget drivers for the schools include about $400,000 in new positions, Superintendent of Schools Geoff Bruno said in a recent memo. Other budget increases cover upticks in wages and health insurance costs.

One of the biggest new expenditures is a plan to add a second principal at Falmouth Elementary School.

In budget documents available online, Bruno said with current enrollment at 894 students, Falmouth Elementary is the largest primary school in Maine and is more than twice the size of the average elementary school in the state.

During last week’s budget hearing, O’Shea said the School Board reduced Bruno’s proposed budget by about $260,000 at an April 1 meeting. This reduced the overall tax rate increase on the school side to 40 cents per $1,000 of valuation, 11 cents lower than originally expected.

Jen Libby, chairwoman of the board’s Finance Committee, said keeping any increase in the tax rate to a minimum was “at the forefront of every conversation” her committee had around the new school spending proposal.

The town budget, which totals $13.5 million, represents an increase in spending of about $480,000 and adds less than 1 cent to the tax rate, according to figures provided by Peter McHugh, the town’s finance director.

The biggest drivers for the municipal budget, both McHugh and Town Manager Nathan Poore said, are increases in salary for town staff and a need to add part-time firefighters to better respond to the increasing number of calls for emergency assistance.

Other budget drivers include more than $263,000 in new debt payments for the $6.6 million Falmouth Memorial Library renovation and expansion project, and the full cost of a new school resource officer, Poore said in mid-March.

Enrollment questions

Whether there are enrollment issues at the schools has become a point of debate recently, with some residents pushing the town to address growth and density concerns caused by changes to various residential zones in summer 2016.

In particular, Valentine Sheldon, who created the Save Falmouth website, has said allowing higher residential growth in town threatens the schools and could lead to overcrowded conditions.

In response, Bruno provided a written statement, dated March 26, in which he said overall enrollment over the past 10 years or so has remained steady. For the upcoming academic year, he said, an increase of 16 students is projected, for a total enrollment of 2,143.

The statement, available online, also indicates student-to-teacher ratios at all grade levels are “well within” the guidelines established by the School Board, even though the schools are also seeing several enrollment bubbles in various grades.

But at last week’s budget hearing, Sheldon said his research shows that Falmouth’s local student-teacher ratios are higher than what’s recommended by the state, in particular for kindergarten and first grade.

Sheldon said the Essential Programs and Services formula – used by the Maine Department of Education to calculate how much state aid each school district will receive – says the ideal ratio is 15-to-1 in the lower grades, and Falmouth’s average now is about 18-to-1.

“I’m just making this point because my numbers have been questioned,” Sheldon said. “I just want clarification. Is there growth? Is the budget going up because of increases in enrollment?”

At the April 3 meeting, O’Shea acknowledged that some individual classes are seeing enrollment increases, especially in the primary grades. But, he also said while “there are pockets of growth, the outgoing high school classes are larger than the incoming grades.”

That ends up leaving the schools “pretty even” in terms of their overall enrollment, he said.

Following the April 3 meeting, Bruno told The Forecaster the student-teacher ratios used for EPS funding purposes “are lower and different than actual class size guidelines” found in Maine state law.

That’s because, he said, the EPS formula also counts teachers who are not assigned to specific classrooms, such as art, physical education, reading support, world language, and technology teachers.

Bruno said state statutes set the acceptable student-teacher ratio guidelines at 20-to-1 in kindergarten; 25-to-1 for grades 1-8, and 30-to-1 for grades 9-12.

The local guidelines, as established by the Falmouth School Board, call for student-teacher ratios of 20-to-1 in kindergarten through second grade; 24-to-1 in grades 3-5, and 25-to-1 for grades 6-12.

Therefore, Bruno said, “our policy maintains class size, student-teacher ratios that are lower than state guidelines.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 780-9097 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

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