2013-08-09 / Front Page

Another go-round for school vote

Town Council OKs board’s plan for general purpose aid; now it goes to the polls
By Michael Kelley
Staff Writer

Last week, the Town Council approved a recommendation by the Board of Education to use $520,283 of the $788,755 in additional general purpose aid the district recently received to cover retirement costs in the district and increase the school’s gross budget to $39.47 million.

The remaining $267,755 would be used to reduce the tax burden on residents.

Now voters will have a chance to weigh in on the recommendation. On Tuesday, Aug. 13, the town will host the third referendum vote for the fiscal 2014 school budget. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Town Hall. Absentee ballots are currently available in the Town Clerk’s office.

Voters will also be asked whether they approve increase excise tax revenues by $350,000 and decreasing municipal revenue sharing by $326,432.

Town Councilor Richard Sullivan said if voters turn down the referendum vote, it could have serious impacts on the school budget.

“If voters turn down this, there is going to be repercussions in the school budget. They will have to adjust the budget and I am sure there will be layoffs,” he said.

Scarborough Town Manager Tom Hall said the changes in state aid and municipal revenue sharing were not unanticipated.

“This is not entirely a surprise,” he said prior to the Town Council approving the measures by a 5-0 vote at its meeting Wednesday, July 31. “In fact, there were open discussions between the Council and the Board of Education about the possibility. Now we know for certain what the effect of the state budget (on Scarborough) is.”

It was a surprise, however to learn that Scarborough would receive more than enough aid to cover the cost of funding teacher retirement, a cost the state passed on to local communities earlier this year.

Chris Caiazzo, a member of the Board of Education and chairman of its finance committee, said the proposal is a compromise and is “in the best interest of the town.”

The money could have been used as additional revenue for the district, but the board decided to use the balance after funding its share of the retirement cost to reduce the tax burden.

“As a member of the school board, I was tempted to use that money to restore some of the programs we scaled back as a result of the two previous school budget discussions,” he said.

In total, the education and municipal budget changes reduce the tax rate by 8 cents. Several residents who spoke at the meeting pushed for additional tax relief.

Drew Gwyer, a resident of Oceanwood Avenue, said additional relief is needed this year because the circuit breaker program — a tax relief program for renters and homeowners — has been discountinued. The program, according to the Maine Revenue Service, is being eliminated in favor of a refundable Property Tax Fairness Credit beginning in January 2014.

“In light of the circuit breaker program essentially gone and in consideration of the seniors and pensioners in town, can we take the additional $788,000 in general purpose aid and apply it to the entire school budget and reduce the tax liability for town residents,” Gwyer said.

Paula O’Brien, who is “all for teachers and all for education” said the tax burden on residents because of educational spending is too much for some to bear.

“Almost 32 percent in property tax increase in the last five year; it’s more than a lot of people can bear, so I would like to see the entire amount go to reducing the taxes,” O’Brien said.

Town Councilor James Benedict said doing so would not address the issue at hand — finding a way to fund retirement pensions — a cost the state passed on to the local level earlier this year.

“If we give all the money to reduce the tax rate, that’s all good and well, but that doesn’t help the school in this situation they did not plan for, foresee, or at fault for,” Benedict said.

Some critics, however, argue the school district is at fault after allegedly misappropriating funding several years back.

At the Town Council’s first reading of the budget amendment July 17, Superintendent George Entwistle said in 2010 the school district applied money it received from the Federal Education Jobs Fund to cover the salary and benefits for custodians and bus drivers, instead of using state aid for the cost.

“With the best interest of the town in mind, the school board, back in 2010, while following the guidance of state officials charged with administrating these federal funds, approved grant money to cover salary and benefits for custodians and bus drivers,” Entwistle said.

Doing so, Entwistle explained, changed the way Scarborough received state funding moving forward.

“Little did the school district know that when it took the stimulus money, two years hence down the road, it was going to be reflected in how much the schools would receive in funding,” said Councilor Judy Roy, who served as chairman at the meeting.

The Board of Education, however, did not know that at the time the lasting impact that decision would have. The decision changed the district’s Essential Programs and Services formula, a formula used to determine how much aid towns get from the state.

“When they looked at how to best use these funds they thought it would be in the best interest of the town to apply those funds to jobs that didn’t require the additional assessment of retirement,” Entwistle said.

“If you don’t fund jobs that have that requirement, the money is going further,” he added at that meeting.

While state officials approved Scarborough’s use of the money then, they have since said it was not the best use of the funding.

Some have argued the Scarborough School District misappropriated funds and got itself into this situation. Town Councilors said that was not the case.

“I fully support the school board’s explanation of what happened. I understand it completely and I hope my constituents trust my ability in understanding what happened and it was not being a misappropriation of funding,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said approving the amendment on Aug. 13 would be voters’ best chance for tax relief.

“With this, $291,393 would be put toward the tax rate. If this doesn’t pass, there will be nothing put toward tax relief this year,” Sullivan said.

Hall said if that is the case, the money would be considered additional revenue over what was expended and be rolled into the budget for the next fiscal year.

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