2017-07-14 / Community News

Another year, another round of cuts to school budget

By Michael Kelley Staff Writer

Facing the need to cut the 2017-2018 school year budget by an additional $236,000 at their July 5 meeting, members of the board of education indicated they were making the necessary cuts because they had to, not because they want to.

“I will support these cuts because we don’t have a choice. It’s disappointing every single time we have to do it. It’s really getting old,” said Board of Education chairman Kelly Murphy, who has been through five failed school budget validations since she started on the board in 2011.

She lamented that “every dollar we put into schools in Scarborough is criticized every time. There is not another municipal department that has people making philosophical arguments against spending.”

Murphy said it is “appalling and shameful” that many voters have that attitude and continue to vote down the school budget, which is what happened at the first school budget vote June 13.

Board member Cari Lyford is much newer to the board – having joined in 2015 – but like Murphy, is also tired of fighting to get the budget passed year after year.

“It’s ridiculous. Every year I spend a little bit more time on Realtor pages and I am someone who obviously believes in the schools and will fight for budgets,” she said. “It’s not an appealing choice when people compare what we go through in Scarborough to what other towns go through.”

She said she would support the recommended cuts, but did so unhappily.

Since the failed budget in mid-June, Superintendent Julie Kukenberger has been working to figure out why the budget failed. The majority of the 196 respondents to a non-scientific online survey created she created, (56.6 percent) indicated they voted down the budget because they thought the then 3.49 percent tax rate increase was too high. More than a quarter (26.5 percent) didn’t want to see any sort of tax increase and another quarter voted no because they were frustrated with other town or school issue.

Because of that failed vote – whatever the reason – the town council reduced the overall town budget by $307,000 – $71,000 from the municipal budget and the remainder from the school budget.

Kukenberger said she worked with members of her leadership council and staff members at all levels to look at ways to cut the budget and what sort of impact those decisions would have “not just at the moment, but moving forward.”

The spending plan was reduced $75,000 by postponing the hiring of a high school career and academy coordinator, a new position that was aimed at improving the opportunities students had to explore career paths.

Not hiring someone for that position, Kukenberger said, was a “very hard decision to make.”

“This is an area we need to make improvement. Postponing this investment this year puts us a little further behind,” she said.

Although she voted along with her board members to eliminate funding for the position, board member Donna Beeley was adamant that such a position is needed in Scarborough.

Beeley said as a liaison to the board’s education and business council she has seen the excitement members of the business community in town have expressed in partnering with the schools. That enthusiasm will be lost, she said, with the delay of the position.

“Other towns near us have had this, for years, for years, in their schools,” Beeley said.

Lyford said even without the position, a number of special education and gifted and talented students in the schools are benefitting from business-community connections across town.

By reducing the 6-12 behavioral specialist position from full-time to part-time, the board was able to achieve $30,000 in savings.

This, Beeley said, is another important position.

“We need to have trained people in our schools to help staff with special needs kids,” she said. “It is a critical piece, I hate to see lost.”

The school department was able to find $39,000 in reduction by renegotiating the copier replacement and service plan and another $32,000 by refining the amount budgeted for collective bargaining agreements and $30,000 by reducing district-wide instructional supplies and professional development.

The athletics and activities budget was reduced by $30,000 by delaying uniform replacement ($15,000), adjusting cost for ice time for the hockey teams ($6,000), eliminating funding for a national professional development conference ($4,000) and reducing the business secretary work hours ($5,000).

Kukenberger said routine replacement schedules, whether it be for uniforms or something else, are important because whenever you deviate from that schedule you have “really large gaps” you are trying to backfill in future years.

Kukenberger said while finding places to cut, she purposely avoided eliminating entire programs or offerings, which would have been a much easier, albeit controversial, way to make up the requisite budget reduction.

“Maybe we aren’t making that splashy cut that would get everyone’s attention and pull on the heart strings, but these are really impactful,” Lyford said.

Board member Jodi Shea, who chairs the finance committee, said these latest cuts are on top of two rounds of prior budget reductions.

“It is important for us to look not just at what is here tonight, but what’s been lost in the past,” she said.

Prior reductions included delaying the hire of an assistant athletic trainer, reduction of K-5 supplies, eliminating funding for middle school field trips, reducing funding for new high school textbooks, limiting enrollment at Summer Reading Academy, eliminating a foster grandparent at Eight Corners Primary School and reducing district-wide professional development.

“None of these are token cuts in my opinion and will be felt for years,” she said.

The totality of the reductions and reallocations will result in a $47.1 million gross operating budget, which is 2.88 percent, or $1.3 million more than the 2016-2017 school year gross operating budget. The net budget – the amount of funding needed from taxpayers – is $42.5 million, a $2.7 million, or 6.8 percent increase over fiscal year 2017.

With the new budget set, it will be up to town voters to approve, or reject, the school budget.

Polls for the second validation vote will be open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 25 at town hall. Absentee ballots are available through the town clerk’s office. Early voting will continue until Thursday, July 20. Those requesting ballots on Friday, July 21 and Monday, July 24 can only due so if they meet special circumstances (if physically disabled, out of town unexpectedly during the time polls are open the day of the election or unable to leave house due to incapacity or illness).

Absentee ballots will be accepted through 8 p.m. on July 25.

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

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