Friends and neighbors, we hope you and yours are healthy and safe as we navigate through the choppy and uncharted waters of 2020.
If you have lived in Scarborough for a couple of years or more, you certainly know that the town/school budget process is a full-contact sport. This year has been particularly bruising, especially in contrast to last year’s quiet season. The budget process began in January and will culminate in the first vote on the school budget on July 14. Look for a second vote in mid-August.
You will be forgiven if you have not paid close attention to the hours upon hours of finance committee meetings, various Town Council and School Board budget “workshops” and the actual Council and School Board meetings. In addition to being long, sometimes baffling and sometimes inconclusive, they have also been acrimonious and combative at times.
And good luck to you if you were trying to keep abreast of what was going on without watching all the meetings! It just couldn’t be done. The discussions were so convoluted and exhausting that the local press basically gave up on reporting on the budget until it was finalized at the June 24 Town Council meeting. Well, then, how about going to the Town’s online “budget portal” to find out what was in and what was out of the final budget? Forgeddaboudit!
So that’s where LookOutScarborough comes in! In the next ten minutes (seven, if you skip the snarky parts) you will have a good summary of the Fiscal 2021 budget and have an informed basis for voting on the school referendum on July 14.
After all was said and done, here’s a very condensed summary of how much taxpayers will kick in next year compared to this year:
The bottom line of required tax dollars translates into a tax rate increase of 1.24%. As you can see, the municipal operating and capital budgets achieved a 1% decrease compared to last year. Town management took the financial needs of taxpayers seriously. Among the steps taken to reduce the budget were voluntary salary reductions by some Town employees, temporary work hour reductions through the Workshare program for other employees and significantly reduced capital requests.
Compared to the municipal tax burden decrease of 1.0%, the school operating and capital budgets require a 2.6% increase in taxpayer funding next year. Obviously the no-limits folks were in charge of putting together and pushing this year’s school budget.
While some may be tempted to say, “Hey, a 1.24% overall increase in the tax rate isn’t so bad,” we believe a ZERO % increase – or, perish the thought, a decrease – would have been much preferable in light of the pandemic-related financial challenges and uncertainties taxpayers are facing. You know, unemployment, reduced work hours, loss of income, loss of businesses. Not to mention last year’s property tax increases when 60% of homeowners received a tax increase of 10% or more due to the residential revaluation.
And a ZERO % increase could have been achieved if the schools had done their part.
The school budget in perspective
When the school administration and School Board fail to take into account the needs of the residents who ultimately pay the bills, you get a budget like this. There was no consideration of where the money was coming from. To those who developed this budget, the taxpayers are a faceless money machine that never runs dry.
As noted in the chart above, the proposed school budget requires taxpayers to put up $1.2 million or 2.6% more in Fiscal 2021 than in Fiscal 2020. Here are three facts – which you probably won’t see mentioned anywhere else – that make that somewhat reasonable sounding number very questionable:
First, that 2.6% increase is after the State kicked in $760,000 more education aid to the schools this year.
Second, to get to that 2.6% increase, the School Board used $700,000 of “reserves” or fund balance. Without that infusion of reserves (which will be gone and not available next year), the total taxpayer funding of the schools would have increased by 4.1%.
Third, despite much wailing and gnashing of teeth about numerous positions being cut during the discussions, we don’t believe the staffing level from Fiscal 2020 to Fiscal 2021 declined at all. Indeed, if our review of the data is correct, there was a net addition of four positions in the Fiscal 2021 budget. (Please note that our review was done on a best-efforts basis and its accuracy cannot be confirmed. At some point we hope that the schools will provide an analysis of the FTE changes. Perhaps someone with influence with the School Department can request that analysis. In the meantime, take our estimate with a grain of salt.)
The teachers’ contract – deafness, delay and defensiveness
Geez, we thought we had a School Board that valued sensitivity to the entire community, transparency and communication. Well, maybe not as much as we hoped.
So why did the schools’ requirement for taxpayer dollars go UP by 2.6% while the municipal requirement went DOWN by 1.0%? Two words: teachers’ contract.
DEAFNESS: As we correctly estimated two months ago, the three-year teachers’ contract calls for a 15% pay increase over the life of the contract. That includes an average salary increase of 4.8% as of September 1. And when you consider that the salaries and benefits of teachers and other professionals included in the contract account for more than half of all school operating expenses, it’s quite easy to see why the tax requirement of the schools increased so much.
We are amazed that the School Board could approve a contract with that level of salary increases. How many Scarborough taxpayers are expecting their salaries or incomes to increase by around 5% per year? Did the Board ever consider the taxpayers’ ability to pay? Did they even ask themselves those questions?
We understand that much of the negotiating of this contract happened before the impact of the pandemic was understood. But the contract was not ratified by the teachers’ union and the School Board until well after the financial calamity of the pandemic was understood. There was time to adjust the salary increases to a more reasonable level that was consistent with the community’s financial situation.
DELAY: In addition to ignoring the financial situation of the taxpayers, the School Board did their best to keep the results of the teachers’ contract under wraps as long as possible. For instance, at the very end of the process after both parties had ratified the contract, it took them 18 days to affix signatures to the formal contract. Seems like an unnecessarily leisurely schedule to us for a document that is the largest single driver of expenses in the combined municipal/school budget. (Despite the very laid back execution schedule, there’s a glaring typo on the heading of the column of salaries for the third year of the contract on page 30.)
The salary increases were unseemly at best; the longer they could be kept out of public discourse, the better. We understand that the contract negotiation process is not a public one. But we can also tell when information that should be made public is being slow-walked (with the help of the taxpayer-paid legal firm) through the process to delay public announcement of the startling results of the teachers’ contract.
DEFENSIVENESS: Finally, after the pressure to release the contract to the public became too great, the School Board posted the contract – without any analysis that would make its financial impact meaningful – to the School website on June 22. They followed up with a classic posterior protection move (CYA) by announcing on June 25 that they had reached out to the teachers’ union to explore concessions. Oh, great! After the contract is signed – when you have ZERO leverage – you go through the motions of asking for concessions. Sorry, that doesn’t feed the bulldog!
For the record: Your editor highly respects and values the Town’s teachers and their importance to the community. He wants and expects them to be well paid. At the same time we must consider those who pay the salaries — the taxpayers. In a world of limited resources, the reality is that we have to balance the impact of expenses for school and municipal services with the amounts residents can afford.
Final Exam (counts 100% of grade)
For the reasons cited above, it’s clear to us that the School Board failed to prepare a budget that appropriately responds to the community’s needs. Please vote NO and send the budget back to the School Board. Make them come back with an honest, gimmickless, threat-free budget that responds to the needs of both the schools and the larger community.
Please get out there and vote — early voting at Town Hall on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays through July 13 is quick, easy and safe. Election day is Tuesday, July 14; voting is at the High School from 7am until 8pm.
That’s all for now, folks! Look for more thrills and spills ahead!
Take good care and be neighborly, now more than ever,
(nom de blog of Steve Hanly who is solely responsible for the blog’s contents)