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Scarborough Schools Meltdown Continues…

“No Comment” mode

More on the Creech Breach

What is the School Board doing?

Impact on High School Accreditation?


It’s been more than a week now since the School Board meeting at which residents blasted the new school start times and the announcement the following day of the “resignation” of High School Principal Creech.  Here’s an update on the current situation and some important additional background information that has come to light.

The School Department and School Board are in radio silence mode.  It’s “no comment” to every question.  Probably on the advice of lawyers.  But that gives school leadership a great excuse to do what they are best at doing – not communicating with the public.  And we must say they’re doing a bang-up job of it.  Plus, don’t you love it when lawyers are running the show?  That always creates an environment conducive to cooperation and reconciliation.


More on the Creech Breach…

The circumstances surrounding why Principal Creech was offered the resign-or-be-fired option by Superintendent Kukenberger have not been clear.  While they remain unclear, a fuller picture is beginning to emerge.  It’s possible that “philosophical differences” or perhaps “style differences” may have arisen between Creech and Kukenberger soon after her hiring as superintendent in July, 2016. 

Creech applied for and was a finalist for the high school principal’s job in Falmouth in the summer of 2017.  Which means he applied for that job within about a year of Kukenberger’s arrival.  Perhaps that was merely a coincidence.  Or perhaps not. 

One definite source of recent tension between the principal and the superintendent was a disagreement on the proposed implementation of a “standards-based” grading system.  Here’s our two-paragraph layman’s summary of the issue:

Scarborough schools are engaged in a multi-year project to implement “proficiency-based education,” a State-mandated system of instruction, assessment, grading and academic reporting.  (God bless the teachers!)  Part of that mandate is to implement a new “standards-based” grading system. 

The group of high school teachers who were asked to make recommendations for the new grading system wanted to maintain the traditional 0 to 100% grading scale, along with introducing the new 4-point “standards-based” scale (basically: exceeds, meets, partially meets or does not meet expectations).  They reasoned that the traditional scale should be retained in order to provide colleges with more comprehensive student grades.  They argued that not retaining it would put Scarborough High students at a significant competitive disadvantage in college admissionsKukenberger apparently wanted to ditch the traditional grading system altogether.  Creech sided with the teachers, and as a result he was given the resign-or-be-fired choice.

We obviously weren’t there, but the letter to the Superintendent from the teachers who were working on the grading system suggests that the above account is fairly accurate.  [Readers who may have more direct knowledge of what occurred are encouraged to share any insights by using the “Reply” function at the top of this page.]


So what’s the School Board doing?

As we mentioned, it’s been more than a week now since the noisy School Board meeting and the Creech “resignation” announcement.  So has the School Board swung into action to address the crisis of public confidence?  Have they held an emergency meeting – either in public or in executive session?  Apparently not.  There’s certainly been nothing about a meeting (or any sort of communication about the current situation) on the Board’s website or the online School Department calendar.  Oh, well, there’s a regularly scheduled School Board meeting coming up on Thursday, March 1.  What’s the big rush anyway?  At this point you have to wonder if they’ll even discuss the situation then…  (Can’t you hear it now: “On the advice of our attorney, we will not be discussing any of the issues the public cares about.”)

Some School Board members have apparently been left more or less in the dark about what’s happening.  It must have been a rude awakening for new members of the School Board to observe the lack of public information and the appearance of institutional paralysis.

The Brazilian three-banded armadillo rolled into a defensive ball.

As part of their armadillo strategy, the School Board has also declined to meet with a group of High School teachers to discuss the forcing out of Principal Creech.  That would have to be done through the teachers’ union, said the School Board chair.  Ahh, communications and transparency!  Not to mention, flexibility!

We should note that despite the ongoing meltdown, the current edition of the Scarborough Board of Education Newsletter came out a few days ago.  Lots of stories about the great things the kids in the schools are doing.  But not a word about what the adults are up to.  Frankly, it’s the adults we’re concerned about these days.


NEASC Accreditation of the High School

Timing is everything, as the saying goes.  And one of the very unfortunate aspects of the timing of the current meltdown of school administration and governance is that the High School is right in the middle of its reaccreditation by NEASC, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.  This is a once-every-ten-years event that is supposed to certify that the high school is up to snuff.  It’s sort of a basic seal of approval that many colleges look to as they evaluate the students they will admit from a school.

As High School principal, Principal Creech is the point person for the accreditation process.  Fortunately, the on-site visit part of the evaluation has already taken place.  Now they’re drafting the report of findings.  One can only wonder what the evaluators from NEASC will make of the current messy management/governance meltdown.   The evaluation focuses on seven areas, one of which is “School Leadership and Culture.”  We hope NEASC will put one of their most diplomatic writers on that section of the Scarborough report.  Look for the report this spring… unless NEASC decides it would just be too embarrassing to have to address this issue in its current state of discomposure.


A recall in the offing?

There has been some scuttlebutt about potentially recalling one or more of the School Board members.  This is not an easy process, nor one that should be undertaken lightly.  The reality is that about 2,600 signatures would have to be collected within a 20-day window to have a recall election.  (The exact number of signatures required is 25% of the number of Scarborough residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election.)  Given the School Board’s handling of this situation so far, a recall effort doesn’t seem at all far-fetched.


A rally in support of Principal Creech is scheduled for 7am on Monday, February 26, at Town Hall. 

To avoid delays, drivers who use Route 1 in the Town Hall area should find an alternative route.  Of course, there is no alternative route, so just bring along an extra granola bar, bagel or donut and enjoy the show!


Thank you!

 Our sincere thanks to you for reading this blog.  And a special thank you to all those who have reached out with information or encouragement.  Both are greatly appreciated!


That’s it for now.  Happy trails until we meet again!

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah


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Winds of Change Shake Scarborough Schools

Special Report on the School Start-time Controversy

 “No confidence”

School Board recall?

Strong teacher opposition

H.S. principal forced to resign


There has been a deep division in the Scarborough school community about the new school start times for more than a year.  The issue has been simmering on high for many months.  But it roared to a full boil this past Thursday and Friday.  At an unusually well-attended School Board meeting on Thursday evening, parents voiced strong opinions on the adjusted school start times that are scheduled to go into effect in September.   [If you are not familiar with the issue, please see the details at “Start-Time Issue in a Nutshell” below.]

The Board of Education meeting on February 15. Usually, they’re lucky if the audience is more than 2 people.

Most of the parents spoke against the changes, often in strong terms.  Some parents indicated a lack of confidence in the school administration and the School Board.  Some parents are apparently seriously considering launching a recall vote for members of the School Board.  And as of this writing, more than 960 individuals have signed an online petition asking the School Board to reevaluate the new start-time schedule (link here)


Teachers oppose new policy

Perhaps the most striking part of the School Board meeting was the president of the teachers’ union reading a letter that stated that more than 100 teachers and other professionals attended a recent special meeting about the start-time change and voted “overwhelmingly” against it.  This sort of division within the school system can’t be a healthy sign.


High School Principal Gets the Heave-ho

One would have thought that it would be impossible for the school administrative regime to outdo themselves after the Thursday evening School Board meeting.  But you have forgotten – this is Scarborough, a different kind of town.  So less than 24 hours after the meeting, the news broke that High School Principal David Creech had been asked to resign.

Now we have only a nodding acquaintance with Mr. Creech, mostly through seeing him at School Board meetings where he made presentations on various topics over the past few years.  The impressions from those encounters were uniformly favorable.  And his reputation appears to have been a highly favorable one, as a caring, effective and well-liked leader.  But perhaps he had not been supportive enough of the start-time change.  Or ran afoul of the administration in some other manner.  We freely admit that we don’t know what happened.  Perhaps we never will.  But we do know that the forced resignation of Mr. Creech poured gasoline on a fire that was already well-established.

There’s a separate online petition calling for the School Board not to accept Mr. Creech’s resignation (link here).  As of this writing, more than 1,250 folks have signed that one.  For a frame of reference, there are about 960 students at the High School.

Frankly, we were astounded by this decision at this particular time.  Who made the decision?  Who reviewed and approved it?  Was there a complete lack of situational awareness?


The start-time issue in a nutshell…

For those of you who do not have a child in the Scarborough schools, here’s the issue in a nutshell…  School hours are being adjusted as shown in this table as of this coming September:

 

Remember that the times above are school start and end times.  They do not include bus rides on either end; that can be up to 50 minutes in each direction.

In summary, the youngest kids’ school day will start almost an hour earlier than it currently does, while the high school kids will start an hour and fifteen minutes later than they do now.

The main impetus for the change was the science that says high school kids need more sleep in the morning.  (Let’s face it, “science” isn’t what it was in the good old days when Mr. Wizard showed you how to mix a bunch of match heads with ammonia to create an awesome stink bomb.)

But many parents are objecting to the practical implications of the change, like having to make different and longer daycare arrangements, having later times for sports and other extracurricular activities and interfering with after-school work schedules.  Not to mention the impact on the youngest kids of having to be in school nearly an hour earlier.  Which means waiting for the bus before sunrise for some of the wee ones.   And some parents have noted that these K-2 kids are the ones who need the most sleep — yet their days will begin nearly an hour earlier than they do now.

.

While later start times have been implemented in several southern Maine communities, Scarborough’s version is apparently more extreme than any of the others.

 

Underlying the discussion of the facts and opinions is a basic trust issue.  Parents have cited a lack of transparency, broken promises and an unwillingness to compromise by the school administration and School Board.  It’s the old classic: “thanks for your input, but we know better” attitude.   That’s a sentiment that instantly rings true for anyone who has even a casual acquaintance with Scarborough’s past track record of local governance.


 

 

 

 

About the media coverage of the recent developments: 

The Portland Press Herald finally posted an online story about the tension in the Scarborough school community at 2:14pm on Sunday, three days after the School Board meeting and 48 hours after the announcement of Mr. Creech’s resignation.  They were probably forced into it by television coverage of the Creech matter.  Their willingness to leave the story alone until forced into it is consistent with the paper’s long, cozy relationship with school administration.  Keep that bias in mind as you read PPH stories.

And then there’s the Scarborough Leader, whose news delivery model is quaintly embalmed in the 1950s.  That model assures that news occurring on Thursday, February 15, won’t reach your mailbox until eight days later, on Friday, February 23.  Really, guys, have you given any thought to online updates of “breaking news?”


Coming up next…

A first look at the Scarborough Downs development.  What does it mean for Scarborough?  At what point does the Scarborough we know and love become an entirely different place?   Big growth.  Big implications.  Big questions.  Stay tuned.  And be prepared to THINK BIG!


That’s all for now, folks.   Happy trails until we meet again.

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah

 

Assessing Scarborough’s Assessing Fiasco… how much will it cost YOU?

Happy New Year, Friends and Neighbors! 

We’re going to start the year off with some fireworks courtesy of Scarborough’s Assessing Department.   Now before your eyes glaze over at the mere mention of the Assessing Department, be assured that this little tale is worth listening to.  In fact, so far it has cost more than $800,000 of our hard-earned tax dollars.  And another million bucks could easily follow them out of our collective tax-paying pockets in the near future.

This all has to do with a fairly complex and messy legal battle, but it’s our job to boil down the complicated stuff and leave you with the essence of it… which may make your hair stand on end.

Here’s the four-sentence summary of the current legal mess:  For many years, Scarborough’s tax assessor would sometimes reduce the assessed value on an empty lot a homeowner had that was adjacent to the lot with his or her home on it.  This practice was not publicized or “official,” but was available if you knew about it.  So if you happened to know about the discount “program” and you asked for it, you might get a nice reduction on the value of that vacant lot you owned next to your main property.  It was particularly valuable to homeowners of shorefront or “water-influenced” property, since getting a 40-70% reduction on the land value of an abutting $1 million undeveloped lot would produce a significant real estate tax savings.

(Note: this offer has expired!)

The trouble with this is… it’s illegal.  State law requires all similar lots be valued similarly.  And applying the discount on a selective basis obviously discriminates against other homeowners who are having their land valued at the appropriate, non-discounted value.

So a bunch of Scarborough property owners realized that they were paying full freight when a select few were getting a bargain rate and challenged the Town’s illegal and discriminatory valuation practice.

We don’t pretend to understand the nuances of the legal wrangling and various court cases that have been swirling around this issue for the past 2-3 years.  But here’s the payoff:  The courts have determined the Town’s discounted lot practice was illegal and the Town has had to refund some of the suing homeowners’ taxes.  Here’s the tab that we taxpayers have picked up so far:

Unfortunately, the above amounts may be only the beginning of the total that Scarborough taxpayers will ultimately pay for this assessing fiasco.  In December, 2017, the court essentially said that the $395,000 awarded to the suing homeowners so far was not appropriate compensation for the discrimination they experienced.  The suing homeowners have suggested that “fair” compensation for the assessment discrimination is another $1.2 million or more (plus interest).  And, of course, the Town’s legal fees continue to mount.  So don’t be surprised when the budget discussion for FY19 includes a substantial amount for a “tax abatement allowance” or similarly innocuously described item.

So that’s the gist of the sad tale.  Of course, there’s much more to it – like how this could possibly happen, who was responsible, was anyone held accountable and what’s being done to prevent similar costly problems going forward?  (You can probably guess the answer to at least one of those questions.)  We’ll get into those matters in a subsequent blog… unless there’s a great outcry of “please, no more assessing stories!”

 

Pine Point Beachfront Lot – Yours for a Song 

(Well, not YOURS…)

You may recall, back in May, 2017 we reported on the Town’s proposed giveaway of Avenue 2 at Pine Point.  (Here’s the link to that blog.)  This is the one where a developer is claiming he owns half of Avenue 2, which is a “paper street” leading to Pine Point Beach.  Avenue 2 has been used by the public as a path to the beach for generations.  And although public access will still be maintained via a permanent public easement included in this almost-done deal, there’s still reason for public concern, or perhaps even outrage.

First of all, it’s further evidence of the Town’s unwillingness to protect historic public beach access against the lawyered-up acquisitiveness of private interests.  How many bad land deals does the Town need to make at Pine Point before citizens from all parts of the Town stand up and say “enough of this!”?

And taxpayers get a more direct poke in the eye on this particular deal…  The Avenue 2 lot the Town will be handing over to the two abutting property owners is beachfront property about 50 feet wide.  At Pine Point, that means its assessed value would be about $ 1 million.  The deal is that the Town will get a permanent easement of the middle 10 feet of the property to allow continued beach access.  Which leaves 20 feet on each side for the two abutting property owners – Mr. Gendron on one side and the Gables Condos on the other.

The only possible silver lining we could see in this deal was that at least there would be some newly taxable beachfront property assigned to each of the abutters.  If 40 feet of the 50 foot Avenue lot were to become taxable, that would be up to $800,000 of newly taxable property for the Town (or about $13,000 of new tax revenue).  But we were increasingly wary of that benefit occurring when the Town Manager repeatedly refused to answer questions about approximately how much newly taxable assessed value would be added as a result of this deal.

Then the bomb was dropped at the Town Council meeting on December 6:  Due to the easements on the property, what is now Avenue 2 would be classified as “wasteland” for tax assessment purposes after the deal is done.  Yes, in Scarborough we have beachfront wasteland.  We still don’t know if there will be any new assessed value on the former Avenue 2, but we have a feeling that if there is, it’s going to be pretty minimal. Yes, “beachfront wasteland” is a hard concept to wrap your head around.  But this is “Scarborough, Maine – a different kind of town”©.


The Old Cynic’s Corner

Speaking of the assessment legal mess… isn’t it strange that the Town could come up with the totally unbudgeted $471,000 to pay the first installment of the tax rebates and interest out of some never-discussed slush fund (“the overlay account”) and “fund balance” without batting an eye. 

But think back to the waning days of past years’ budget processes – when at the last minute we had to impose the parking meter fee at Higgins Beach ($8,000 of revenue) in order to balance the budget… and we had to eliminate the warming hut at the Town skating rink ($6,000 of expense) in order to balance the budget… and we had to eliminate some of the beach raking at Pine Point ($8,000 of expense) in order to balance the budget.

Yes, those minuscule amounts were all presented as budget-busters.  Compared to the recently made unbudgeted tax abatement payments, they were all obviously chump changeAnd we, fellow taxpayers, were the chumps.   Let’s not let that happen again.


COMING SOON

Well, that’s all for now.  Happy trails to you until we meet again!

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah

LookOutScarborough BULLETIN — Public Commenter Arrested!

Michael Doyle is cuffed after making public comments at the November 15, 2017 Scarborough Town Council meeting.

As we have often stated here, one of the best reasons for attending Town Council meetings in person is for the entertainment value.  You just never know what’s going to happen, no matter what’s on the agenda.  This was proven again in spades at last evening’s meeting (11-15-2017).

The drama occurred very early in the proceedings as Michael Doyle was using his allotted three minutes of “public comment.”  For those who aren’t familiar with this part of Council meetings, it’s an opportunity for any citizen to spend three minutes speaking on any topic under the sun.  In Mr. Doyle’s case, he had just concluded comments on Scarborough’s bid for the second Amazon headquarters and was moving on to some comments about Town Manager Hall. 

As he was making those comments, Council Chair Babine, animatedly assisted by Councilor Donovan, attempted to silence Mr. Doyle.  (For the youtube video of Mr. Doyle’s comments, see this link.)

When Mr. Doyle refused to be silenced, he was arrested by one of Scarborough’s finest and later charged, we believe, with criminal trespass.  (For the video of his arrest, use this link.)

Mr. Doyle, the editor of FalmouthToday.me, is a frequent commenter at Town Council meetings and obviously has a soft spot in his heart for the Town and its leaders.  [Editor’s note:  The website’s content is at times incendiary and we are not endorsing any of its contents.]  You may have seen him at a table after the November 7 election plugging his website and new book.

Michael Doyle at his table at the November 7, 2017 election, plugging his website and his new book.

The Town Council episode played out in front of an audience that was swelled from the usual handful of attendees by a group of several Boy Scouts (and their parents) who were there to make a presentation to the Council.  And what a memorable civics lesson they got!  Speak at your own peril!

The official video of this meeting should be available on the Town website in a couple of days; go to https://sctv.viebit.com and look for the November 15 Town Council meeting.  We expect it will be in very high demand.  Let’s just hope the Town doesn’t hire the Rose Mary Woods Audiovisual Processing Company to upload the video to the website.

Well, just in case the local news media doesn’t think an arrest at a Town Council meeting is newsworthy, we thought it best to keep you informed.  We’ll also try to keep a running tab on the costs of the lawsuit that is sure to follow.

And the beat goes on.

Stay tuned for the next blog update — how much the tax assessment mess is costing you and more.

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah

Michael Doyle is cuffed after making public comments at the November 15, 2017 Scarborough Town Council meeting.

Can Scarborough Afford a New $21.5 million Police/Fire Station?

Well, the public safety building proponents are running a good campaign — lots of press, lots of community outreach, a big open house at the current station (see images above), lawn signs and probably an ad in this week’s Leader.  All, we might add, privately paid for.   So it falls to LookOutScarborough to answer that all-important question: “Hey, what’s this new building going to do to my tax bill?”

As we have said before, the current police/fire station is cramped and needs updating.  But it’s a huge leap to go from there to needing a $21.5 million facility to replace it.

So let’s get right to the facts and figures you may not be hearing about…

Impact on our taxes

So what does a new $21.5 million police/fire station really mean for our tax bills?  Here are a couple of facts provided by the Town:

  • First year mortgage payment (principal and interest) on the building: $1.4 million. (Don’t be put off if you hear the term “debt service”… that just means the principal and interest payment on the loan for the building that gets included in the Town’s expenditures.)
  • Approximate first-year tax impact on a $300,000 home: $111. (By itself, that may not sound like much, but wait…)

Let’s do some simple arithmetic here.  The current tax bill on a $300,000 home is $4,947.  An increase of $111 for the new building would bring the tab to $5,058.  Yes, that’s a 2.2% increase just for the public safety building. 

As you probably recall, the Town Council’s recent target for tax increases has been 3% or less per year.  But they missed it this year and came in at a 3.6% increase.  And there have also been dire warnings from town and school officials that next year’s budget is going to be “challenging.”  So we will probably be very lucky to come in with no more than a 3% tax increase for the “routine” operating expenses of salaries, benefits, utilities, and so forth.  That would add another $148 to your tax bill.

 

Add together the 2.2% tax increase for the new public safety building mortgage payment and a 3% tax increase for “routine” operating expenses and it is very easy to expect a total tax increase of 5% or more.   Town officials won’t make a projection of next year’s tax rate.  You heard it here first.

 

Isn’t it better to understand the tax impact before you vote on the public safety building?   Otherwise, when it becomes clear after the building has been approved that the increase will be around 5%, town officials will tell you (with a straight face): “Of course the increase is that high.  You voters approved that public safety building.  You should have expected it.”  Forewarned is forearmed.

For those of you who are so inclined, here’s that same story graphically:

About the Public Safety Building Process…

Yes, there was a talented and hardworking committee that put together the proposal for the new police/fire station.  We appreciate their dedication and expertise.  However…

If you and I, fellow taxpayer, were considering building a new home, most of us would start with the amount we determined we could afford before making the plans.  Why design a $500,000 house when we know the most we can afford is $350,000? 

But the public safety building process didn’t work that way.  Instead, the committee was charged with designing a building that would meet the “needs” of the departments in a cost-effective manner.  So the budget was determined after the building was designed.  There was no guidance in terms of what was affordable to the taxpayers.  If someone provided guidance on a maximum budget, we never heard about it.

Indeed, before the committee began its work, the best public estimate of the cost of the new building was $18 million.  That amount appeared in the Town’s budget book issued in April, just seven months ago.  Sure, it was only an estimate, but presumably it was based on reasonable and conservative assumptions about building size and cost-per-square-foot.  So to be off by $3.5 million or 20% only seven months later raises serious questions about the planning process.

 And it reminds us that we as voters are charged with providing the final “budget control” for the new police/fire station.

“Is that your best price?”

Wiley Field Snack Bar & Restroom Facility, Pleasant Hill

Let’s face it, Scarborough has a reputation for constructing generously outfitted buildings – the Wentworth School, the “Town Mahal,”  the Wiley Field Snack Bar/Brick [Out]house.  Perhaps it’s a function of the above-described committee process that we use.

In any event, we can’t help but wonder about some of aspects of the proposed new police/fire station.  As noted in the last blog, we’re going from a 17,000 square foot building to a 52,000 square foot one – triple the size.  Yes, the current facility is crowded, but is triple the size really necessary?

Detail from architect’s final report.

Then there’s the truck bay in the new building that will house the Town’s antique fire engine, the one that’s currently located at the North Scarborough firehouse.  The proposed new building has an approximate construction cost of $354 per square foot.  The bay for the antique truck in the new building is about 465 square feet.  Doing the multiplication produces a rough cost estimate of about $165,000 for the bay for the antique truck which currently resides (without protest, we assume) at North Scarborough.  Is this a “must do” part of the project?


 

We keep coming back to that huge leap from “the current building is cramped and in need of updating” to “we need a $21.5 million facility to replace it.”

Please consider all the facts when you vote on the proposed public safety building on November 7!  Understand the real tax impact.  Remember, you as a voter are the ultimate budget control in this building project.


Brief update on the Comprehensive Plan

In the last blog, we decried the lack of broad public input into the comprehensive plan.  Instead, we got a lame spectacle called “Planapalooza” that was supposed to make everyone think there was broad public input.  There wasn’t.  We were there.

We suggested, as others have from the beginning of the comprehensive plan development process, that a survey of all residents’ attitudes about the future of the Town was needed… a survey that would be mailed to each of the approximately 8,400 households in Town.  With such a survey we could actually develop a plan that reflects what the Town’s residents want.  (What a novel idea!)

No sooner had we pressed the “publish” button on the last blog, but the following mailing came to our attention:

Yes, our friends next door in Cape Elizabeth are also engaged in the comprehensive planning process.  And guess what?  Their process included a mailing to every household in the Town alerting them to the availability of a survey on their thoughts about the future of the town.  Too bad we couldn’t afford legitimate outreach to all households to get a real handle on what the entire town wants, not just the 100 or so people who had the time and agenda-driven motivation to participate in process.   You would think with a budget of $135,000 for the comprehensive plan that our consultant could have squeezed in a real attitude survey like they did in the Cape.

And already we have the “first fruits” of the Comprehensive Plan!  Yes, someone at Town Hall (undoubtedly with the blessing of the Politburo) decided Scarborough should enter the sweepstakes for Amazon’s second headquarters location.  This was the first manifestation of what will now be touted as the overwhelming consensus of the citizen input phase of the comprehensive plan: “Think BIG!”

Never mind that Scarborough doesn’t come close to meeting Amazon’s preferred requirements.  Never mind that it’s hard to imagine any scenario that would be more likely to suck every last ounce of the Town’s remaining character out of it.  All that matters is that we think BIG!

Sure, Town officials describe the application as a “long shot” and an “academic exercise.”  But you will be forgiven if you think this “exercise” may have demonstrated that we have some staff with too much time on their hands.  We can think of several very real current challenges and issues that could benefit from more attention by Town staff.  We bet you can, too.  Perhaps it would be better to hold off on future “exercises” until the Town’s real issues are resolved.


Next time: the big tax assessment mess, how much it has cost us (taxpayers) already and how much more it may yet cost.


So long until next time.  And happy trails until then.

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah

[Statement of responsibility: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author only and should not be attributed to any other persons or groups.]

[Correction: In the original version, the location of the Town’s antique firetruck was given as the Dunstan firehouse.  This was a reporting error; the engine is located at the North Scarborough firehouse. Corrected 11-02-17, 3:00 pm]


Scarborough’s Edifice Complex

Well, so much for a nice, relaxing summer in Scarborough! Who knew it would take until September to pass a school budget!  And then, when all was said and done, the final overall tax rate increase was 3.6% — more than the 3.5% and 3.0% increases that went along with the two defeated school budget referendums.  Only in Scarborough!

But, as your grandmother may have said, there’s no rest for the wicked.  Not only is there already great hand-wringing about next year’s school budget, but there are currently two major issues on our municipal plate – the approval of a new $21.5 million police/fire station and the creation of the Town’s “comprehensive plan.”  Both of these will have significant impact on our tax bills – one quite soon and one on a longer-term basis.

First, the new police/fire station.  This is a tough one.  It is abundantly clear that the current building is too small and past its prime.  There’s also no doubt that our police and fire personnel deserve a better facility.  But the tough part is the financial justification of a new building.  No matter how you slice it, there’s going to be a major increase in our tax bills if this building is approved at the November 7 referendum.  Here are some of the key numbers:

That’s right, the Town will have a new mortgage payment of $1.4 million the first year the new building goes into service.  That $1.4 million will go right on top of the other “routine” cost increases we face each year for municipal and school salaries, debt costs, other operating costs and capital equipment.  So prepare yourself for another big tax increase in the near future. 

We’re working on our projections of the Fiscal 2019 and 2020 tax increases.  Let’s hope the Town is, too.  But be aware: some of our elected officials are dead-set against doing financial projections… probably because they know just how bad they would look.  The lack of long-term financial discipline inevitably leads to fully predictable “surprises” in budget —– and tax rates.

More on the financial impact of the proposed new public safety building next time.


Bamboozled by a Planapalooza©?

Some readers may have heard about the comprehensive plan process that the Town has recently embarked on.  Unfortunately, though, many Scarborough residents either haven’t heard…or don’t care.  But this is a process you cannot afford to ignore!

The State of Maine requires communities to prepare a “comprehensive plan” every 12 years.  While it is a zoning document at heart, the “comp plan” sets the Town’s broad general objectives for the next 10-20 years.  Things like, how fast do we want the Town to grow?  Where do we want that growth to occur?  What sort of housing solutions do we want to accommodate population growth – single family homes, condos, small apartment complexes, high-rise apartment buildings?  What will the impacts of growth be on demand for services and facilities?  (How much more crowded do you want Route 1 to be?)  And about a thousand more questions… the ultimate answers to which lead directly back to your tax bill.

The headquarters of our comp plan consultant, TPUDC, in Franklin, TN.

For this planning process to be reflective of the entire Town, it needs broad general input from as many of us as possible.  Unfortunately, that broad general input is not happening. As a result, the comprehensive plan is being crafted by a boutique planning consultant and a very narrow sliver of the Town’s population.

 

Sure, there’s been all sorts of talk about what an inclusive process this is going to be.  But when you get right down to it, it’s not working out that way.  The way “public input” has been structured, you have to make a determined effort to give input.  First, you have to figure out that your input is wanted. 

 

Last month, four neighborhood meetings were held to allow citizens to share their visions of Scarborough in the future.  To a large extent, this was an exercise in compiling a wish list.  And, according to a published report, only a total of about 50 of us grass-roots citizens attended the four meetings.  (At some meetings,  Town officials and employees  seemed to outnumber us garden-variety folks.)  Did people not know about these meetings or did they just not care?

You can still provide input by going to the special comprehensive plan website (www.scarboroughengaged.com).   Once there, you can join the small number of your fellow citizens who have commented on the discussion forums.  (Chances are these are mostly people from that same group of 50-100 who have been “engaged” through the in-person meetings.)   Or you could have spent a day or two at “Planapalooza©” from September 25-28.  Come on now… how many of us are able to devote several hours to this exercise?

From the very beginning, several residents have asked to have the public input process include a survey of all residents.  You know, mail a survey to every household that asks the folks who live here how they envision Scarborough’s future.  Yes, we know, how quaintly 20th century of us!  But let’s make sure that this is really an inclusive process that accurately reflects what the Town as a whole wants, not just the 100 or so people who can figure out what the hell a Planapalooza© is.  Remember, there are nearly 20,000 of us who call Scarborough home… let’s not have 100 people make decisions that will significantly impact all of us.  Also important:  a mailed survey will reach two sizable groups that may not otherwise be well represented – those older residents who are not attuned to email/social media and the many part-year residents who have now returned to their winter homes.

There’s been a whole lot of waffling as to why a hardcopy survey can’t be mailed to all residents.  But the absolute best reason we heard that we couldn’t possibly do an all-households survey was… you’re gonna love this one… it would be too expensive!  The approved budget so far for the comprehensive plan is $135,000 and we can’t fit in a decent public opinion survey?  What are we missing here???

Much more to follow as the initial outline of the comprehensive plan becomes clear.


Special interest group scuttles school budget!

One of the main reasons many of you apparently read this blog is so that you can have at least some idea of what’s really happening at Town Hall without having to sit through all those mind-numbing meetings. (Of course, the price you pay is that you have to put up with your editor’s often cynical perspective on what transpired.) 

But the September 18 meeting of the Joint Town Council/School Board Finance Committee is a good example of the sort of high quality entertainment you might not be aware of if you weren’t a LookOutScarborough reader.  This meeting featured a debriefing of the recently (and belatedly) completed Fiscal 2018 budget process. 

We were surprised to hear that several of the participants thought the budget process actually worked quite well.  In fact, the only fly in the ointment according to them was some special interest group that insisted upon widely publicizing a number that didn’t support the party line.  So the 50%, more or less, of voters who are concerned by increasing taxes are now a “special interest group” in addition to being “anti-education.”  And you know who you are.

The other rather startling aspect of this meeting was the obvious reluctance of the committee members (with one exception) to embrace financial planning and forecasting.  Remember, this is a finance committee.  And they’re against financial forecasting.  You know, so you can kind of look ahead to see what financial demands will or may be on the horizon and consider those demands when you’re preparing the current budget.  Most folks would consider that to be common sense.  But once again, Scarborough distinguishes itself – with a finance committee that comes out against financial planning.  [If you find this hard to believe, please review the video at this link.]


Lots more good stuff coming…

 

Yes, the past few weeks have been chock full of newsworthy developments at Town Hall.  We confess it has been difficult to keep up with them all.  But we’re putting our nose to the proverbial grindstone and planning to have another blog entry within the next ten days or so. 

Among the topics we’re feverishly working on:

  • The great trash bin defacing/decorating controversy… including our plans for the first (and last) trash bin decorating contest.
  • The very expensive tax abatement suit that the Town recently made its first payment on.
  • Updates on both the new police/fire station and the comprehensive plan.

Phew.  So much going on.  It takes your breath away.  

Please stay informed.  Remain vigilant.  And for heaven’s sake, keep composting!

Happy trails until we meet again,

TT Hannah

 

 

Scarborough Tax Rate Bombshell

Due to the time-sensitive nature of this information, we have taken the unusual step of amending and reissuing this blog post…

Tax rate increase goes from 2.9% to 3.6%.  Voters left in the dark.

At a Finance Committee meeting last evening (August 31), Town Manager Tom Hall announced a revised tax calculation for Fiscal 2018 based on the final Town valuation from the Assessor’s Office.  Using the school budget that voters will consider at the September 5 referendum, the overall tax rate increase goes up from 2.91% to 3.58%.

The reason for the significant increase in the tax rate was a dramatic decrease in the Town’s projected valuation.  It had been projected to increase by about $50 million over last year, but instead increased by only $9 million.  We will leave the explanation for that decrease, why it was not anticipated and the timing of its announcement to Town officials.

The increase of the tax rate by 3.6% completely deflates the argument consistently used by Town and School officials that – even with a 6.7% increase in taxes raised for the schools – the overall tax rate increase will be less than 3%.  Not any more.

The 3.6% increase is also more than the 3.5% overall tax rate increase associated with the school budget that voters overwhelmingly rejected on June 13.  So when we vote at the third school budget referendum on September 5, we will be considering a budget that results in an overall tax rate increase that is larger than that of the school budget we rejected on June 13.  Unfortunately, the 1,800 or so citizens who already cast absentee votes will not have the benefit of that information.

And since there is only a holiday weekend between now and the September 5 vote, it will be extremely difficult to inform those who haven’t yet voted about the tax rate increase.  Please spread the word in any way that you can.

 Now back to the original blog post…


 

Well, here we are again, folks… battle lines drawn, facts unsheathed, talking points finely sharpened and ready to pummel each other at the ballot box.  (The American way, after all!)   Some of those outside of Scarborough apparently marvel at the seriousness with which we take the school budget approval process each year.

It is rumored that medical and sociological researchers are even now submitting grant applications to study this phenomenon, tentatively named School Budget Compulsion Disorder (SBCD).

We are hopeful that some enterprising therapists will soon develop a program to help those afflicted by SBCD.  If they do, probably the first step will be to admit that we have a problem.  And that, friends, is where we need to begin.

The Town Council just can’t be convinced that the taxpayers of Scarborough are not okay with a 6.7% increase in taxes for the schools or an annual 3% increase in the overall tax rate year after year.  The root cause of our financial problem is that school expenses have continued to be inflated with new positions and programs over the last few years at the same time as State education aid has declined.  Bottom line: school expenses are out of balance with tax revenues.  Until this is acknowledged, nothing will change.  Unfortunately, more NO votes appear to loom on the horizon.

So how do we “get to yes”?

We realize that making a significant reduction to school expenses for the current budget could be disruptive and counterproductive.  On the other hand, if we do nothing now, we are doomed to repeat this exact same budget struggle next year.

How do we know next year will be a repeat performance?  Here’s an excerpt from the Budget Forum responses from this spring:

“Though the process is very much in process, the expected tax rate increase for FY18 will likely be less than 4%. We expect to see a significant decrease in the amount of fund balance available to offset taxation in FY19 so we may reasonably expect a similar increase that year.”

Notice that the overall tax rate for Fiscal 2019 is described as a “similar increase” to that of “likely less than 4%” in Fiscal 2018.  This is another ugly picture for Fiscal 2019.  (LookOutScarborough’s own projection for Fiscal 2019, which we shared with Town and School officials, suggested an increase of more than 7% in taxpayer funding of the schools and a 4.2% overall tax rate increase.)

So the path to YES seems to be less about a further reduction for Fiscal 2018 and more about an honest commitment to beginning right now to reduce school expenses for Fiscal 2019.

It is more of the same for next year’s budget unless the schools take meaningful action during Fiscal 2018 to reduce the expense base to a level that matches our current tax revenue.  We believe Superintendent Kukenberger can make such reductions in a creative and prudent fashion that will result in no or minimal impact on student learning.  The only possible path we see to YES is a genuine commitment from the Town Council and School Board to get expenses and tax revenues back in balance prior to the Fiscal 2019 budget process.  Unless that happens, we see a continuing stalemate.  And will be forced to VOTE NO!

Time for Town and School leaders to really lead!


Is he back?

We must say we have been impressed by the new superintendent’s calming and level-headed approach to this year’s version of the school budget drama.  It’s a refreshing change from prior years when scare tactics were one of the School Department’s go-to approaches.

But then we saw a couple of recent Facebook posts by Supporters of Scarborough Schools and we wondered if they had engaged Dr. Entwistle as a consultant.  Take a look at this one:

 

Yikes!  Doom and gloom!  No money for teachers!  “No more cuts!”  (That one slays us!)  Overcrowded classrooms!  How can this be?

Well, friends, we think there may be just a tad bit of exaggeration going on here.  No, make that a ton of exaggeration on top of a boatload of hyperbole.  Please take a look at this handy little chart on targeted and projected class sizes that appeared in the School Department-prepared responses to the Budget Forum questions back in April:

As you can plainly see, projected class sizes for the just-beginning year are at the low end of the targeted ranges.  In fact, the average class size for the high school (17 students/class) is well below the targeted level (20-24 students/class).  Just how these numbers translate into the hysterics of the Facebook post we do not know.  But it does make us wonder if Dr. George is back in the house.


Gee, we have so much more material that we weren’t able to get to this time due to the early holiday posting deadline… 

  • Jackie Perry’s quote at the end of a recent Forecaster article saying that it’s just not true that enrollment has declined and expenses have increased.
  • The Town Council chairman’s instructions to the public that he be referred to by his title, rather than his name. 
  • Another Facebook post by the Supporters of Scarborough Schools insisting that we currently don’t have a school budget (which, of course, we do, albeit a temporary one as provided for in State law). 

So much material and so little time!

Plus, with all the emphasis on the school budget this summer, a couple of other extremely important projects haven’t been getting as much attention as they deserve:

  • Proposed new public safety building – This $21.5 million project has significant implications for our tax rate.  So far, Town officials have remained silent on that aspect of the project.
  • New comprehensive plan – This project will help decide what Scarborough will be like ten or twenty years from now.  So far, we’ve seen little evidence that those directing this project are interested in getting broad public input on Scarborough’s future

Much more on these critical topics and more in future posts.


But for now, have a wonderful Labor Day weekend!

And, as always, be neighborly!

TT Hannah

(who is solely responsible for the contents of this blog and the opinions expressed therein)