Welcome to the first issue of Look Out Scarborough! – a blog about news and issues affecting the Town of Scarborough. We hope to share facts and opinions about what’s happening in Town… and help you have a voice in those important issues. We intend to deal with serious issues, but in an engaging and painless manner.
There’s a lot happening at Town Hall and in the schools. To follow and understand it all is a full-time job. But since most of us don’t have that much time available, we hope this blog will highlight important issues and provide the facts surrounding them – allowing you to be an informed voter and to make your voice heard.
In terms of topics to be addressed, we intend to “cover the waterfront” – both literally and figuratively. Since we are now in the middle of municipal and school budget season, our initial focus will be on the budget issues that directly affect your tax bill. In the future we plan to explore issues as diverse as neighborhood development, the Town’s strategic growth plans and perhaps even hockey arenas.
This blog will strive to maintain complete factual accuracy. The opinions expressed will, of course, follow our interpretation of the facts. You may agree totally with some of the opinions and disagree heartily with others. But that, friends, is one of those wonderful things that makes the world go round.
So, without further ado…
Scarborough Schools Squeezed
The school budget for the year beginning on July 1 is being developed right now. It promises to be hot topic of conversation when publicly announced on – wait for it – April Fool’s Day. Many of our neighboring municipalities have already announced their proposed school budgets. Here are the increases proposed by a few of them:
Source: Municipal websites and media sources. We believe the amounts shown are accurate and comparable but cannot guarantee that,
About these amounts: The first column of numbers is the percentage increase in the total budgeted operating expenses of the school system, including salaries, benefits, supplies, debt service, etc. The second column is the percentage that the tax rate (or “mill rate”) attributable to the schools will increase on tax bills. So the second column includes not only the expenses in column one, but also the impact of revenue sources, primarily funds received from the State for education.
Tough Year for Some School Districts
As you see from the proposed budget increases above, this has not been an easy year for some school superintendents to prepare a budget. Especially those superintendents who are used to proposing large annual increases in total school operating expenditures. The problem for some school districts – including Scarborough – is that the amount of State aid to education (“General Purpose Aid” or “GPA”) will be cut significantly. In Scarborough’s case, the amount of State aid for our schools is proposed to be about $1 million less than last year. (Last year it was about $4.8 million, this year about $3.8 million.)
Although it seems very few mere mortals can actually follow the GPA calculation, it appears that Scarborough’s $1 million reduction is a result of (1) a 2% decline in our student population from 3,178 in 2013 to 3,131 in 2014 and (2) a modest increase (0.6%) in the total real estate valuation of the Town.
In contrast, our friends in Cape Elizabeth, whose student population and valuation stayed essentially flat, received an increase of nearly $500,000 in GPA from the State. Even more bizarre, RSU 10 (Rumford and neighbors) had similar changes to Scarborough’s in student population (down 3%) and real estate valuation (up 1%), yet the GPA allocation process gave them an increase of more than $800,000. If and when we find an explanation of the logic and desirability of the results of the current GPA allocation model, we will bring that explanation to you tout suite.
Two somewhat important side-notes to this GPA issue: First, the total State funding of public education across all Maine communities has actually increased very modestly over last year’s level in the Governor’s proposed budget. So it’s the allocation mechanics – determining winners and losers – that is the cause of consternation, not some draconian cut being proposed by the Governor. Second, the GPA amounts going to the municipalities across the State have not been finalized. At this point, these are proposed amounts, so the final amounts will likely be different.
What does it all mean?
So, as a reasonable Scarborough taxpayer, what does one make of all this? Well, the FY16 school budget is going to be a tough one any way you look at it. Even before building in salary and benefit increases, program “investments” and the one-to-one computing request (laptops for all 1,000 high school students), the expense budget is under considerable pressure because of the forecast $1 million cut in State aid. Will Scarborough residents accept a school budget that results in an 8 or 9% tax increase for the schools like Saco and Westbrook currently have on the table? We don’t think so. If there ever was a time for the School Department and Board of Education to focus on reducing operating expenses, now would be that time. Yes, it will be difficult and unpleasant work, but if it doesn’t happen, a long and ugly battle over the school budget seems likely.
Speaking of enrollment data…
We have been consistently surprised that enrollment data gets so little attention in Scarborough. It’s certainly not featured on the School’s website and it rarely seems to come up at School Board meetings. When a question about enrollment trends does arise, the response has been along the lines of “oh, it’s been fairly steady.” Not a very definitive or convincing answer. So, in the interest of an informed citizenry, we are pleased to present the following history of recent enrollment at Scarborough schools:
Now we’re not statisticians here, but we know a trend when we see one. Of course, history is just history. Not necessarily predictive of the future. But we would love to see the history provide a starting point for a public discussion of expected enrollment over the next several years. Will the downward trend continue? Will there be a significant turnaround? Either way, what are the implications for staffing and facilities? And future State education aid?
Budget quotes from our neighbors…
From the Yarmouth Superintendent’s Recommended Budget:
“School Committee asked Superintendent to develop budget with two goals in mind:
1. Maintain quality programming
2. Minimize impact of local tax assessment”
[Someone please pinch me when our School Board asks the Super to minimize the impact of the local tax assessment.]
And the Winston Churchill Award for School Leadership goes to…
“There are some significant position cuts in this budget that I am concerned (about) moving forward with, but my goal I set for our administrative team was to come in right about 3%.”
Poetry for the Budget Season
When T.S. Eliot said: “April is the cruellest month…,” he certainly didn’t have the Scarborough budget preparation season in mind. But as a Scarborough taxpayer, you may come around to Eliot’s way of thinking. For April is when we get the proposed municipal and school budgets for the coming tax year.
With a reduction in State aid to education (described above) and the need for additional “investments,” the school budget, at least, promises to be a lulu.
But, like the first crocus poking through the crust of snow, there is a glimmer of hope this year. Well, perhaps “hope” is not the right word. More like a glimmer of public awareness. The Town and school department have made an effort to open up the process somewhat this year — which we appreciate. Here are three April events that you should know about and consider attending:
Board of Education / Leadership Council Joint Workshop – April 9, noon – 4:30pm, Council Chambers at Town Hall. We have also seen this referred to as a “School Budget Workshop.” In the March 20 issue of The Leader, the School Department had an unenthusiastic invitation to this event. Here’s one of the key paragraphs: “While these meetings [i.e., workshops] can be overwhelming to the general public, since so much information is provided in a relatively short meeting time, they are valuable learning opportunities. Another opportunity for this dialogue is open to the public on April 9, noon to 4:30pm at town hall.”
But assuming this is like other Board of Education workshops, the general public will be expected to sit quietly and observe, perhaps being allowed a 3-minute statement. So the public will be allowed to watch the “dialogue” occur between the Board and the school administration, but not be allowed to participate in it. A dialogue held in public is not the same thing as a public dialogue.
And if the School Board believes this meeting will be “overwhelming” to the general public, perhaps they could plan a meeting or series of meetings that are geared to the public’s ability to understand the financial operation of the schools.
“Town Hall”-Style Meeting – April 29, 7pm, Scarborough High School. This is one we’re really looking forward to! We understand that elected officials and administrators from the Town and Schools will be taking questions from the public about the budget. Not only that — unlike at Town Council and School Board meetings — they are planning to answer them! If this actually happens, it will be a major breakthrough for the Town – real public dialogue! We understand that this format was employed “in the old days.” Let’s hope it works again now. For some reason, this event doesn’t appear on the calendar on the Town website as of this writing (March 22).
Scarborough Schools Community Dialogue – April 30, 4:30 – 7:30 pm, Wentworth School Cafeteria. This is our favorite by far! Here’s the description: “The Community Dialogue is an opportunity for all townspeople to help guide the future planning efforts of the Scarborough Public Schools. Community members, students, parents, teachers and school staff, civic and business leaders, and elected officials will be encouraged to sponsor and participate in dialogues. Dialogues are self-directed and focused on topics of educational, economic, and organizational importance to the Scarborough Community. For more information, please call 730-4100.”
We already have several topics we plan to propose. Please start thinking of the topic you would like to “self-direct!”
So April is chock full of opportunities to become informed about the FY 2016 budget… and to provide input to it. If you cannot attend these events, fear not. We will provide post-event reports and analysis. It won’t be as much fun as attending, but at least you’ll find out what happened.
[Editor’s note: Our staff bard is hard at work composing a poetic celebration of the budget season. Look for the results in the next issue of this blog. He’s working on a sonnet, but don’t be surprised if it turns out to be a limerick.]
That’s it for now. Stay tuned as we review details of the Town and School budgets as they are announced. And please share this blog with friends and family in Scarborough. Thanks for reading and sharing!
Your faithful blogger,
(nom de blog of Steve Hanly)
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