Voters send Scarborough school budget back for more cuts

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SCARBOROUGH — For the third consecutive year, voters on Tuesday rejected a school budget.

The referendum on a fiscal 2016 budget of approximately $39 million failed by a vote of 1,719 to 1,408. 

The proposed budget represented an approximate 8 percent increase from this year. 

Combined with the municipal budget for a net of $59.3 million, if the budget had been approved, the property tax rate would have been $15.97 per $1,000 of assessed value in fiscal year 2016. Taxes would have increased by $261 on a home valued at $300,000, for an annual tax bill of nearly $4,800, compared with $4,530 this year.

In an accompanying ballot question, 1,761 voters said the proposed budget was too large, 710 said it was acceptable, and 619 said the budget was too small.

“Of course my initial reaction is one of very much disappointment,” School Board member Chris Caiazzo said Wednesday morning. “I think the process this year was more open and more engaging than it’s ever been, or (at least) in recent memory anyway.”

Unfortunately, Caiazzo said, the turnout was lower than expected; the district has approximately 3,200 students and the election drew 3,127 voters – about 15 percent of the town’s registered voters.

“It just didn’t resonate with parents for some reason,” Caiazzo said. “The kids are the ones going to suffer from that apathy.”

Now it’s a matter of the School Board and the Town Council deciding what steps to take next and to “see what kind of reduction the council has in mind,” Caiazzo said. 

He insisted, and School Board Chairwoman Donna Beeley agreed, that the budget rejected by voters was already very tight. 

Before the June 9 referendum result was known, Beeley described the board’s proposed budget as “very lean.” Rejection of the budget by voters will require “substantial decisions as to what will be cut,” she said after the votes were counted.

Resident Steve Hanly, whose blog Look Out Scarborough has provided critical opinion and analysis of the budget, said he believes the school budget was rejected because “it failed to adequately balance two competing needs – a high-quality school system and an affordable tax rate for the residents of Scarborough.”

The majority of voters saw an 8 percent increase in taxes for the schools as “too much, especially in light of the 28.8 percent increase over the prior five years,” Hanly said.

He said he hopes the School Board will “undertake a realistic review of programs to identify meaningful cost reductions that can be achieved in a non-disruptive manner.”

The Town Council must submit an amended school budget to voters no fewer than 10 days and no more than 45 days after the original referendum, Town Manager Tom Hall said. 

Submitting a new school budget does not have to happen by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, “but in the event that a school budget is not approved by the voters before July 1,” the budget that was “last approved by the Town Council” will go into effect until a new budget is accepted by voters, Hall said. 

“As a practical matter I will be proposing an adoption process and schedule that would hold a second validation vote on June 30, but these details have not yet been finalized,” Hall said.  

With this schedule in mind, the budget process won’t necessarily have to be accelerated, “but we’d certainly have to make some pretty quick decisions here to make that happen,” Caiazzo said. 

In the next few weeks, “we’ll be faced with some very difficult choices moving forward. Hopefully we’ll work together with the council to come up with a number that’s reasonable that voters will approve,” Caiazzo said. “The voters have decided and we have to adjust accordingly.”

The last time Scarborough voters approved a school budget on the first attempt was in 2011. Approval took two attempts in 2012, three times in 2013 and two last year.

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.  

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South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.