Unlike last year, Cape Elizabeth school budget sails through council

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CAPE ELIZABETH — The Town Council this week moved the school budget forward without changes.

The finance committee, made up of the entire council, met with the School Board Tuesday to review the proposed $24.3 million budget for fiscal 2017. The committee approved it unchanged by a vote of 6-1, and scheduled a May 9 public hearing on the school spending plan and the proposed $12 million municipal budget.

Councilor Kathy Ray cast the dissenting vote. She suggested the School Board and the Town Council could each reduce their budgets by 1 percent.

“I think there’s always a chance to sharpen the pencil a little bit more,” said Ray, who is chairwoman of the council finance committee.

Ray said she is concerned about the projected overall tax rate increase, which is expected to be 3.9 percent, or an additional 66 cents per $1,000 of valuation.

“I think about the people who contact me and the people I know who can’t afford the tax increase,” she said.

This year’s agreement on the school budget contrasts with what happened a year ago, when the council – over objections from the School Board – reduced the school budget by $110,000 to achieve a budget that wouldn’t increase taxes.

School Board member Jo Morrissey, chairwoman of the school finance committee, called the council’s action this year “terrific.”

“I think it’s wonderful that the Town Council has faith in what we’re doing as a district,” Morrissey said.

The school budget, which was approved by the School Board April 12, includes an increase of almost $742,000, or 3.2 percent over the current year. Staff costs and benefits make up the largest part of the increase – 82 percent – due to raises in staff salaries of between 2 and 2.5 percent. 

Revenue is projected to decline 10.7 percent, due largely to a reduction in state aid. The Department of Education in January estimated that Cape Elizabeth would receive a state subsidy of $2.43 million, which is a decline of 29 percent from this year, according to the town website. Factors contributing to the state’s decision include Cape Elizabeth’s rising property values and declining school enrollment.

According to the town website, 25 fewer students are expected to attend Cape Elizabeth schools next year.

The municipal budget of more than $12 million, which is an increase of more than $439,000, or 3.8 percent, will also be discussed at the May 9 public hearing.

The total budget, which also includes the Cumberland County assessment of $1.2 million, is almost $37.9 million. The total proposed budget reflects an increase of $1.3 million, or 3.8 percent, from the current year, and would increase the tax rate to $17.54 per $1,000 of valuation, compared with $16.88 this year.

The Town Council is scheduled to officially approve the budgets by May 19. The school budget will then go to a June 14 voter referendum.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.