As the saying goes, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” And what could be a better crisis than a pandemic!? So let the games begin!
Here’s our exclusive overview of a few current crisis-enabled schemes and developments that you probably haven’t heard much about…
Scarborough Schools Awash in Cash
Recall that the school budget for this year includes $534,000 of local taxpayer funds for pandemic-related costs. This was despite a general understanding that a Federal bailout was coming later in the summer.
The bailout did indeed arrive this fall, in two big payouts, totaling $4.3 million for Scarborough. There are two important requirements for use of that cash: (1) the funds can only be used for pandemic-related costs and (2) the funds have to be completely spent or committed by December 30, 2020, just a couple of months from now.
But fortunately requirement #2 plays to one of the schools’ great strengths – spending money. So we’re convinced there won’t be any trouble burning through the allotted cash by the deadline.
We are, however, a bit curious about just how pandemic-related some of the expenses are. For instance, remember that $250,000 heated shed for the new school dump truck that was finally (and thankfully) removed from the schools’ capital budget this past summer? Well, it’s probably just a coincidence, but there’s a $275,000 heated shed on concrete slab included in what we’re going to spend some of the $4.3 million of pandemic funds on. Hmmm….
And let’s not forget the $50,000 for water bottles associated with the $125,000 for the purchase and installation of bottle filling stations. That’s not a joke; those are included in our funding request. While we understand that traditional water fountains are no longer prudent, we wonder about the solution. (And this statement caught our eye: “To ensure equity, all staff and students will be provided with a refillable water bottle.”)
Of course, the real issue here has to do with ongoing expenses. It’s very easy to hire additional staff, lease space and enter long-term contracts when cash is pouring out of the Federal pandemic aid faucet. But who picks up the tab for those new expenses once the faucet is closed? Obviously, that’s a rhetorical question. Evaluating long-term consequences has never been one of the strong suits of the Town or schools.
Scarborough Teachers’ Union Asks for Changes
You may remember the difficulty we had learning the terms of the teachers’ contract before the budget was being finalized this spring. It ended up being an average 15% raise over 3 years (and we’re still waiting for the analysis of the financial impact of the contract). The School Board and union kept that deal quiet for months before the school budget vote. And after the contract was signed, the union was asked by the School Board to make salary concessions like many other Town and school employee groups had. The union declined to make even a token concession.
And we’ve just learned that the teachers’ union has now approached the School Board about a “memorandum of understanding” due to the special circumstances surrounding this school year related to the pandemic. What? An amendment to the contract that was not signed until June 22, well after the severity of the pandemic was apparent? You will not be surprised to learn that – since the School Board is now in negotiations with the union – the proposed contract modifications are all top-secret and the public has no right to know what’s going on in the negotiations.
Yes, the cone of silence has descended once again. We’ll only find out the results of the negotiations when the bill gets presented to the taxpayers.
School Enrollment Down, Not Surprisingly
Have you wondered what’s happening to school enrollments as our pandemic adventure continues? Here’s the scoop as of October 1:
K-12 total last year: 2,999
K-12 total this year: 2,928
That’s a reduction of 71 students, of whom 69 are homeschooling.
Of the 2,928 students currently enrolled in Scarborough schools, 399 have elected the all-remote model. That leaves 2,529 on the hybrid model (2 days a week in school, 2 days a week remote learning).
We haven’t heard how many teachers have decided not to return to the physical classrooms.
Community Services Expansion
It seems like just yesterday that the Town Council approved a lease of the old House of Lights location (14,000 sf) as a site for an expanded childcare program in response to the pandemic. Come to think of it, it was just at the September 9 Town Council meeting that the presentation was reviewed and approved. Estimated annual facility costs alone are about $290,000.
Now for the COVID twist… In the October 22 issue of the Forecaster it was publicly revealed (for the first time, we think) that “Most of the [Community Services] department’s staff that previously used space at Town Hall and Wentworth School has moved in [to the leased space]…” How strange that that administrative space expansion component of the use of the newly leased space was never mentioned during the discussion of the Town Council presentation. Just an oversight? Or a calculated way to take advantage of a crisis?
WEX Building at the Downs on the Back Burner (way back)
We weren’t at all pleased when super-successful WEX held up the Town for a $150,000 per year rent subsidy in order to locate an office building at the Downs last year. Remember, that was in addition to the 40% of the taxes on the new building that we’d be paying to our favorite local boys (the brothers Risbara and Michaud).
Enter COVID-19. And most of WEX’s office workers are now working from home. Which obviously dampens the demand for new office space. Now the rumor is that the new Scarborough office building is on long-term hold. We can only hope this bad deal goes away forever!
Until next time
Well, friends, that’s as much news as we can share without being overcome by the fumes of cynicism and disbelief. We’ll work on some good news for next time!
Until then, stay safe, stay healthy, stay positive and above all…
(nom de blog of Steve Hanly, who is solely responsible for its contents)
PS: We apologize for the over-reliance on 60s TV shows for images this time around. But, hey, if a classic fits, you gotta go with it.