Election day is creeping up on us. This year’s Town Council election is crucial for the future of Scarborough. And the choices we face could not be more stark. Two of the candidates – Michael Turek and William (Liam) Somers – have been strong community voices advocating for a balanced approach to the municipal and school budgets. Both are strong proponents of excellent schools for Scarborough. Both also realize that the school budget “belongs” to all of us, not just the parents of kids in the schools. And that there needs to be a balancing of school needs and taxpayer affordability.
Make no mistake – if the two candidates endorsed by the blank-check-for-the-schools faction are elected, the sky is the limit for the school budget… and for your taxes that pay for it. Be prepared for that first cut of the next school budget to fly through the Town Council, probably on a 5-2 vote.
You remember what the first cut of the school budget usually looks like – “level funding” plus “modest critical investments.” Probably a 9 to 12% increase next year would be our prediction. Even if the municipal budget gets hammered back to no increase again next year, that could mean an overall tax rate increase in the 6 to 9% range. (Call us alarmists if you will, but time will tell. And we’ve been right before.)
Breaking News – No Social Security COLA in 2016
The official word came from Washington this past week – no cost-of-living increase for folks on Social Security in 2016. That’s after increases of just 1.7%, 1.5% and 1.7% increases in 2015, 2014 and 2013. If you rely on Social Security for most or all of your income, the persistent school budget increases must be scary indeed. Let’s hope School Board and Town Council members take this into account when putting together next year’s budget. (And, no, we don’t think the “tax relief” program recently proposed by the Town Council is the solution. More on that in our next blog.)
The Fantasy of School Budget Cuts
We hate to beat a dead horse, but the myth of repeated deep cuts to the school budget persists. Next time you hear the myth repeated – especially by candidates for Town Council – please ask them for specifics. And then ask them to explain the following chart (which is based on Town-generated data).
If our math is correct, that’s about a 30% increase in the amount of taxpayer funding of the schools over the past five years. Do you see any evidence of “cuts”? No, you don’t because the history is of consistent increases at a rate well above the inflation rate. Do not believe the myth of school budget cuts!
School Financial Results for Fiscal 2015
The financial results for Fiscal 2015 – which ended on June 30 – are in. School officials presented the unaudited results to the School Board’s Finance Committee and the full School Board on October 1. All the School Board members appeared to be delighted with the results.
Just a couple of quick observations for now. The budget for FY 2015 included 6.7 new FTEs (full-time equivalent positions). Total expenditures were $41,395,000. That’s about $596,000 less than budgeted. At year-end, the general fund balance (i.e., accumulated unexpended amounts, aka, “the cushion”) was about $491,000. (Remember the kicking and screaming this past summer when some Council members dared to suggest trimming back the cushion a bit more so that money could stay in the taxpayers’ pockets? “An outrageous suggestion! Can’t be done!” was the cry at the time. Turns out it could have been done after all.)
But what fascinated us most about the financial report and the questions asked about it was what did not get discussed. As we have all been told numerous times now, salaries and benefits account for more than 75% of the schools’ expense budget. So wouldn’t you think there would have been some rather detailed information and/or questions about salaries and benefits? Well, there were a few nibbles around the edges, but nothing that gave any real insight into salaries and benefits.
Here’s some of the very basic information about salaries and benefits we would hope to find in the schools’ financial statements:
* What was the total salaries and benefits expense for FY 2015?
* How did that compare to the budget?
* How did it compare to the prior year and what was the percentage increase?
If you ran a $40 million plus business, wouldn’t you want to have a clear presentation of your largest expense driver? Let’s hope the newly elected School Board members are more curious about the schools’ finances. (Yes, yes, we know the financial statements are presented in the State-required format. But that doesn’t preclude presenting them in a more conventional and more meaningful format as well. Indeed, many of those neighboring school systems to whom school leadership is so fond of comparing us to do just that.)
Election note: Which two candidates are most likely to ask meaningful questions about the schools’ finances at budget time?
What’s on the Telly? And what’s not…
Scarborough is fortunate to have a robust public access cable television system. Scarborough Community TV (“SCTV”) broadcasts a host of public meetings and school sporting events on cable channels 2 and 3. And these meetings and events are then available on demand for citizens to watch at their convenience.
The list of recorded public meetings is impressive. Almost any Council, Board or committee meeting that’s held gets televised and recorded. The key word in that last sentence is “almost.” It turns out that one committee meeting that doesn’t get broadcast by SCTV is the School Board Finance Committee. What! Why not? The School Board Finance Committee is where the school budget gets put together and reviewed. It’s where hard decisions get made about what’s in or out of the school budget. And yet it’s not part of the SCTV line-up. Even the Summerfest fireworks display is on SCTV. The School Board Finance Committee meetings belong on SCTV!
For a few more common-sense actions to make Town government more transparent and responsive, please check out the new Barnacles & Bilgewater column at The Current.
That’s it for now, folks. More next week. But please don’t wait until then to vote. Do it today!
Until next time, happy trails!
Important note: The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the writer. Neither Mr. Somers nor Mr. Turek was consulted about the contents of this blog in advance.