2017-08-11 / Front Page

Cuts to school services on the table?

By Michael Kelley Staff Writer

In light of a special meeting in which the town council decided to pare down the school budget by $50,000 before putting it back out to voters Sept. 5, the board of education met last week to pinpoint school services that need to be preserved, need improvement and which ones are at risk.

Superintendent Julie Kukenberger stressed the services determined at risk are not necessarily on the chopping block, but rather ways the schools could save money.

Kukenberger will use the feedback from the meeting, as well other conversations with school leaders to recommend a way to reduce the budget by $50,000.

The board of education will vote on that recommendation Thursday, Aug. 17, the day after the town council’s second reading/ adoption of the revised budget.

“What we are not doing tonight is making decisions or making reductions to the budget. I am going to listen into all of the conversations, plus take in all of the other information I receive on a daily basis through one on one conversations with leadership members, school board members and then I will bring a recommendation to the school board,” Kukenberger said at the Aug. 3 session.

Money could be saved, school leaders and board of education members suggested, in a variety of ways, including reducing the amount of hours elementary and middle schools are open to the public – which would result in lower electricity and overhead costs – delaying the refresh of classroom library collections at the elementary level or limiting the amount of money paid to third-party contractors to do work in the schools.

Other suggestions to curb costs in at the high school level could be to reduce the cost of textbook purchases, delay the hiring of an improvement strategist or bypass a construction project that would provide more storage space.

Facilities director Todd Jepson said his maintenance staff, which is responsible for the six schools, could handle some of the work done by third-parties but cannot take it all on because of their own work demands and the fact work such as masonry, electric or plumbing has to be hired out to licensed professionals. Director of Special Services Alison Marchese said her department also uses third-party contractors for therapy services, but that cost is not borne on the general fund.

Board members Donna Beeley and Jackie Perry expressed concerns with potentially losing the improvement strategist given the amount of work that is going on in the school regarding proficiency-based diplomas and schedule/ class offering changes.

Kukenberger said the challenge in meeting the council’s mandate is “how do we answer the call while keeping forward momentum.”

Since presenting the initial $48.1 million gross operating budget in early April, the school budget has been reduced and refined by more than $1 million. The budget that voters will be voting on next month includes a close to $1.3 million, or 2.77 percent increase in spending, a percentage increase that Kukenberger said is lower than six other town departments. Because of a $1.4 million reduction in general purpose aid – a 40 percent reduction from last school year – the school budget’s net budget of $42.49 million (the amount of money paid through property tax) increases by 6.67 percent.

“This is not a spending problem. We have a revenue challenge here in Scarborough,” she said.

The 2018-2019 school year budget is not expected to be any rosier. The school department will start the budget looking to get out of a $2.3 million hole after using $2.1 million in reserve funds that won’t be available next year to reduce the tax impact for the 2017-2018 school year and to make up $209,000 to get back to a level services threshold.

“Every decision we make not only impacts this year, but next year as well,” Kukenberger said. “It’s another potential gap we have to fill.”

Absentee ballots for the next school validation vote are available now through the town clerk’s office, but cannot be returned until Aug. 17.

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

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