Budget Battle Lines Drawn Over… Cushions!?
By now, loyal reader, you know never to be surprised by the latest developments on the school budget front. But even with that preparation for the unexpected, we need to warn you – the newest development will take your breath away, make your head spin and/or boggle your mind. In a nutshell, it appears that the blank-check-for-the-schools brigade is about to launch a full-fledged attack to add back $320,000 of cushions to the budget. That’s right, they are poised to insist that the Town Council… and the voters… restore to the budget $320,000 of funds that school officials admitted would not harm academic programs if eliminated. (In more polite budget terms, this $320,000 might be referred to as “contingency funds;” in less polite terms, it might be referred to as “fluff.”)
However you care to characterize the $320,000, one thing is clear – the elimination of it from the school budget will not impact academic programs. How can we be so sure of that? Well, for $250,000 of that amount, we direct you to Superintendent Entwistle’s June 22, 2015 “Budget Update” (link here) in which he describes “$200,000 of these reductions, however, would depend upon a fundamental shift in established budgeting practice related to planning for a small amount of fund surplus to accrue during the budget year (to serve as a cushion for any unanticipated expense(s).” [Emphasis added.] He continued: “Another $50,000 was identified as potential savings to be generated by a shared-services agreement with Cape Elizabeth for our new Director of School Nutrition.” Sounds like a good shift in budgeting practice to us. Perhaps there are even more cushions to be found.
Even more directly, School Board Finance Chair Caiazzo said in a public statement at the June 24, 2015 Town Council meeting:
“But it is when we attempt to move beyond this point [$320,000] to close the remaining $180,000 gap that we lose our ability to preserve current programs and services.”
The $320,000 reduction now reflected in the school budget will not harm current programs and services. It is a cushion. We should not be adding cushions to the budget! (For those of you who are interested in Chair Caiazzo’s remarks, please go to the 8 minute, 30 second mark in the video available on the Town website at this link.)
Where are we now?
So what happened at the July 15 Town Council meeting? As is often the case, it can be very difficult to follow the amendment process, especially if you don’t have a copy of the materials distributed to the Council members during the meeting. Here is a quick summary of the changes to the school and municipal budgets approved at the most recent meeting. (Note that these are the changes from the version of the budget rejected on July 7.)
- Added back $180,000 to the school budget (which the School Board had determined – incorrectly, we believe – could only be saved by cutting after-school activities and sports).
- Directed the Town Manager to cut $180,000 more from the municipal budget, apparently in a share-the-pain gesture.
- Added $885,000 to school revenue to reflect the final amount of GPA (“General Purpose Aid”) to be received by the Town from those villains in Augusta. Scarborough’s final GPA amount, after all the budget wrangling in Augusta, was $4,645,000 – a reduction of $133,000 from last year.
- Added $200,000 to municipal revenue budget to reflect additional excise taxes expected to be received by the Town. (This is simply a refinement of a budget estimate.)
Here’s a quick chart that summarizes the amount of taxes to be raised:
As you will note, taxpayer funding of the schools is now down to a mere increase of 4.9%, largely as a result of the final GPA infusion from the State. Municipal operations, on the other hand, are not requiring any increase in taxpayer funding over last year; i.e., a flat budget. Hmmm. Please draw your own conclusions.
An important cautionary note: At the July 15 meeting, the Council approved only the “first reading” of the proposed budget just described. At the special Council meeting to be held on July 22, the Council could very well make additional changes to the school budget we will vote on August 4. Be sure you get an update on the Council’s action before deciding how to vote on August 4! We will, of course, provide an update in our next blog posting.
Hats Off to the Town Council
It’s never easy being a member of the Town Council. We stand in awe of those who willingly take on that responsibility for a measly fifteen hundred bucks a year. That’s likely below the minimum wage when you reduce it to an hourly rate based on the number of hours they work. And never did they earn that salary more than last Wednesday evening when they were besieged by the red-shirted, blank-check brigade.
Our seven stalwart Councilors were alternately lectured, belittled, accused, hectored, browbeaten and admonished. Facts were in short supply, but that didn’t stop the lecturing.
And please remember… it was not the Town Council that cut the Key club, band, cheerleading, wrestling, etc. – while at the same time giving the budgets of school and system administration (and many other areas) a pass. That was the handiwork of the School Board. If there’s one thing that rankles us, it’s misdirected ire!
In their own words
Here is our favorite quote of the week, ripped, as it were, from the headlines:
Second (and dearest to our heart), Ms. Perry maintains that the School Board has answered “every question… about this budget.” Actually, one citizen is still waiting for a reply from Chair Beeley on a July 9, 2015 email to her requesting a copy of any financial analysis that was done in connection with the new sharing of a food services director with Cape Elizabeth. On April 13, the same citizen also requested a copy of the analysis of the financial impact of the custodians’/food services workers’ contract finalized in April; he has not yet received a response. Finally, the suggestion to broadcast and record School Board Finance Committee meetings has been met with a deafening silence. Not every question has been answered.
As to the accusation of inciting parents and public by cutting activities and athletics, if the shoe fits… To the apparently rhetorical question of “but what are our choices?,” we would politely refer Ms. Perry to our previous blog posting where we identified $268,000 to $375,000 of potential reductions that would not harm academic programs. These were areas that we hoped a School Board intent on looking out for the best interests of the kids would have at least required a meaningful review.
Come early for a front row seat at the next Town Council meeting – Wednesday, July 22, 7pm at Town Hall. The festivities will include the all-important “second reading” of the school budget. This is where the school budget amount will be set for the August 4 vote. It will be interesting to see whether the Council holds firm on their unanimous first reading vote or decides to restore $320,000 of cushions to the school budget.
Until next time
Maker of fine cigar ashes since 1951