Well, our friends at the School Board have come up with a new message to sell the 6.8% increase in taxpayer funding of the schools: vote no, it’s too low. Yup, it turns out a 6.8% increase isn’t enough for them! Good luck selling that idea to the taxpayers of Scarborough!
So if 6.8% is too low, just how much do they really need to get a school system they’ll be happy with?
One defense that the blank-check-for-schools folks keep bringing up is how low Scarborough’s overall property tax (or “mil”) rate is. For instance, in her recent piece in The Leader, School Board Chair Beeley stated – apparently with a straight face – “The mil rate in Scarborough is among the very lowest in all of Cumberland County.” According to LookOutScarborough’s count, there were 15 communities with higher mil rates and 9 with lower mil rates. (Link here for a list of current mil rates.) How that makes us “among the very lowest” is indeed puzzling. The article contains several other assertions that range from unsourced to just plain wrong. Perhaps the School Board should consider adding a fact-checker to the school payroll. Why not? Money appears to be no object.
In our ongoing effort to educate and inform, we like to ask appropriate “what if” questions. School Board members are extremely fond of telling us how low our overall mil rate is relative to other towns — especially compared to those towns with school systems we’re supposed to worship, like the Cape and Yarmouth. Somehow that’s supposed to convince us that we’re not spending enough on the schools. Well, as the old saying goes, beware of what you wish for…
Take a look at this table which shows what the taxes would be on that oft-cited $300,000 house if it were located in towns other than Scarborough:
To find what your actual real estate tax would be in one of the above towns, just take your current tax bill and multiply it by the “Mil Rate Multiplier” shown above. [Warning: Please be seated in a ground floor room before making this calculation.]
So is Yarmouth really the goal? If so, we ain’t seen nothing yet. To get to Yarmouth’s mil rate, we’d need to increase our overall tax rate by 43%. (And there are certainly some in Town who wouldn’t have a problem with that.)
There’s an old Indian saying…
There’s an old Indian saying along the lines of “It’s very difficult to find something if you don’t look for it.” That pretty much sums up the School Board’s approach to allocating the $500,000 reduction that the Town Council approved on June 24.
We watched the process as the School Board’s Finance Committee attempted to allocate the $500,000 among various school programs and expense categories. As one would expect, the process was directed by the superintendent – he’s the one who controls the data. And control it he did. The first $320,000 identified by the superintendent and endorsed by the School Board did not involve much heavy lifting. There were a bunch of reductions that were more or less accounting adjustments. And some reductions that might rate a 2 or 3 on a pain scale of 10, but nothing even remotely approaching the “devastating” level that you have likely heard about.
The focus of the final $180,000 of the total reduction then quickly shifted to extracurricular activities – after school clubs, activities and sports. The impact of these reductions was appropriately identified, bemoaned and finally accepted. Hundreds of kids will suffer because of the activities eliminated – 8th grade sports, all Wentworth and many Middle School activities, the Key Club, the band, the chorus, spring boys and girls tennis, among many others.
What was shocking was the almost entire absence of any pushback from the School Board members. There was no demand from them to review any other areas of the budget to determine whether efficiencies might be achieved or less painful cuts made. They apparently believe that it is impossible that other, more appropriate opportunities for reductions could exist. It was a very disappointing process to watch. We wish more members of the public could have witnessed it. The interests of the kids of Scarborough were not well served.
Some could legitimately suggest that our view of the budget review process was inaccurate and biased. But let’s put that possibility aside by looking at the results of the School Board’s reduction allocation process. The following table gets right to the heart of the matter…
That’s right, 18.6% of the extracurricular activities budget was slashed. System administration was cut by 0.3%, school administration was untouched, student and staff support (curriculum development, IT, library, etc.) cut by 0.7%. These categories total about $6.8 million. If they had looked, perhaps the School Board could have identified redundancies, inefficiencies or excesses that would have been less painful than the slashing of extracurricular activities. But if you don’t look, you won’t find.
Now we here at LookOutScarborough are not educators, but we do know budget gaming when we see it… and that’s precisely what this was: Identify programs that will have maximum impact and create the loudest public outcry. This creates a perfect diversion from the failure to perform the comprehensive and even-handed review that should have occurred.
Are those last $180,000 of cuts very harmful to the kids of Scarborough? You bet they are. Are they necessary? No, they are not. Did the Board of Education seriously look for less damaging cuts? No, they did not. This is the real shame in the way this budget process was conducted. The kids of Scarborough are suffering because the School Board members refused to do their jobs in a manner that best protected the kids. Send them a message that this is unacceptable – VOTE NO/TOO HIGH!
Do you hear us?
Sometimes we think many of our elected officials are as deaf as the proverbial haddock. The concept of “affordable” seems to have escaped some of them. Perhaps because they tend to be at the upper end of the income scale, some of them forget that Scarborough is a very economically diverse town. According to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau figures, 49% of us had household incomes of less than $75,000. And the income of 22% of households was less than $35,000.
Let’s hope our Council and School Board wake up and get a better understanding of the impact of relentless increases in property taxes. (And, no, property tax relief schemes are not the answer. Let’s not fund a tax relief program by raising taxes on others! Let’s go to the root cause and keep everybody’s taxes as low as possible.)
OK, if you’re so smart…
More than once we’ve been asked: “So if you’re so smart, what areas would you have reduced instead of the extracurricular activities to come up with the $180,000?” Usually, in a fit of humility, we decline to give specifics and say that’s the School Board’s job. But since they don’t seem willing to engage in meaningful questioning of the budget, we’ll throw out three areas we would have liked to see them give a thorough review:
1. Custodial Services: In the course of bargaining the last union contract, the union “proposed savings of what it believed would be approximately $300,000.” (From Report of Arbitration Panel, dated 10/24/14, p. 4.) The schools’ facilities director “did not find all of them [the union’s proposals] feasible. He felt that realistically, the savings would amount to $108,000.” (Same source.) So at some point in the not-too-distant past, the school and custodians’ union agreed that there was at least $108,000 of savings in the custodial services budget. In addition, the current budget shows High School Custodian wages increasing from about $241,000 in FY 2015 to about $311,000 in FY 2106, an increase of $70,000. Did the School Board request an analysis of custodial expenses in its budget review process?
2. Wentworth Technology Integration: In FY 2015, a technology integration position was added to Wentworth as the new school opened up with significantly upgraded technology. So it made sense to have someone to help get teachers up to speed. Now that the staff is trained, is it necessary to have a full-time technology staffer assigned to Wentworth?
3. Improvement of Curriculum: The FY 2016 budget includes $943,000 for “improvement of curriculum.” In addition to $350,000 of salaries and $152,000 of stipends, this department includes $90,000 of instructional supplies, $70,000 of books and subscriptions, $75,000 of contracted services and $94,000 of staff development expenses. None of these could be shaved by a percent or two in order to spare the Key Club or 8th grade sports?
OK, maybe there’s not an ounce of fat in any of the above areas. But even if the answers to the questions do not result in identifying some savings opportunities, wouldn’t it have been nice to have the School Board members ask for some meaningful analysis of these areas?
Time to act!
It’s very easy to get caught up in emotion and anger on this issue. It’s obviously happening on both sides. And that doesn’t serve anyone well – the school kids or the larger community. At this point, the best thing to do is vote – NO and TOO HIGH. Hopefully after July 7 we can knock out a rational, even-tempered, balanced approach to moving forward. Perhaps we could even start before then…
In the meantime, please make your plans NOW to vote. The easiest option may well be this Tuesday (8am-4pm), Wednesday (8am-6:30pm) or Thursday (8am-4-pm). Friday and next Monday are difficult since you need a “special circumstance” to cast an absentee ballot; it’s hard to do. So the sooner the better!
Please vote NO/TOO HIGH as soon as possible!
We understand that the blank-check-for-the-schools crowd has finally organized. Unfortunately, it’s in response to bogus cuts, but what can you do. The votes of uniformed and misinformed voters count, too. So please, vote as soon as possible. And prod your family, friends and neighbors to vote as well. Use email, social media, flyers, phone calls, Hannaford deli conversations. Whatever it takes. Now is not the time to head for the hammock!