2017-06-23 / Front Page

Back to first block for budget crunch

By Michael Kelley Staff Writer

The second round of the school budget process will look a lot like the first in that there will be a first reading, public hearing and then second reading/final adoption, but school leaders are hoping for a much different outcome.

The first draft of the budget – a nearly $42.5 request of taxpayers – was rejected by 57 percent of the voters Tuesday, June 13. Many felt the tax rate increase, estimated to be 3.49 percent, was too high and wanted to see their tax bills stop escalating so quickly.

The first draft of the revised school budget, which voters could be weighing in on Tuesday, July 18, was expected to be unveiled at the town council’s meeting on Wednesday, June 21, after the Leader’s deadline.

Town Manager Tom Hall said to hopefully get the budget to a figure residents can support, the overall town budget will be further reduced by $307,000.

To get to that figure, and keep the ‘One Town, One Budget’ philosophy, the board of education will work to cut $236,000 from the school budget and the town council will reopen the municipal budget, which was approved May 17, and reduce it by $71,000. This would bring the gross municipal budget to just less than $32.6 million ($633,000 more than last year) and the gross school budget to $47.17 million ($1.3 million more than the current budget). By doing so, the total net budget – the amount to be raised through property taxes – is slated to be $62.7 million, which would set the tax rate at $16.29 to $16.50 per thousand valuation and mean an additional $111 to $174 in taxes for the average tax payer.

“The benefit of doing that is three fold,” Hall said of splitting the $307,000 between the town and school budgets. “One, it continues the same path we’ve taken so far. Second, it gets the school’s gross increase under 3 percent, which is a laudable goal and three, and perhaps most importantly, it gets the expected tax rate increase to under 3 percent. We hope all those things resonate with residents and voters.”

In years past, when the school budget failed, any cut necessary to bring the spending plan down came out of the school budget. Superintendent Julie Kukenberger appreciates the new approach.

“I was surprised to hear the town council would be willing to do that. It aligns better with ‘One Town, One Budget’” Kukenberger said. “I think it’s a really healthy and appropriate approach.”

In order get the budget ready for that targeted July 18 school validation vote, the town council will hold a special meetings for a public hearing at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 28 and a second reading/adoption at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, July 5.

Hall said, “though a compressed schedule, it would leave some time for absentee voting before the 18th.”

The school board is expected to hold a special meeting of its own on July 5 to make the required budget cuts.

“I have been working with the leadership council to come up with a list of different areas we are assessing in terms of further cuts to the budget and the risk of making those cuts,” Kukenberger said.

Kukenberger said although the list will not be final until after the town council’s meeting on July 5, it could mean postponing some investments that were built into the school budget or curbing back spending elsewhere in the budget.

School finance committee chairman Jodi Shea said the intention is not to find the savings by cutting just in one area, such as seventh-grade sports, which was cut a few years ago much to the chagrin of parents, but has since been added back to the budget.

“Intentionally we are not looking for that big thing to cut,” Shea said. “Strategically we are not doing that, but it doesn’t mean (the cuts) will be any less impactful.”

Shea is disappointed the town and school leaders are in this position again.

“It’s unfortunate because ultimately staff and students are the ones who are going to feel the impact of those cuts,” She said.

Since the 2017-18 school year budget will not be approved by voters by July 1, when the fiscal year starts, state law dictates that “the latest budget approved at a regional school unit meeting and submitted to the voters … is automatically considered the budget for operating expenses for the ensuing year until a final budget is approved.”

Having a subsequent vote on the school budget is nothing new for Scarborough. Since 2013, Scarborough voters have rejected the school budget five times, including twice in the summer of 2015.

The council also decided May 17 that if the state were to give Scarborough more general purpose aid for education, half of it would be applied to tax relief in fiscal year 2018 and half would be put in the reserves for future tax relief. Because of the school budget rejection last week, the council was expected on Wednesday to discuss fully allocating any additional state funding into the school district’s reserve account.

“In light of these new cuts, they may decide if we get any more (general purpose aid), it will all go to the reserve to be used in the future. We anticipate we will need it next year,” Hall said.

Staff Writer Michael Kelley can be reached at news@scarbroughleader.com.

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