Thursday, February 28, 2002

Cape prepares for budget fight

Published in the Current

The Cape Elizabeth School Board is ready to fight the Town Council to keep its budget.

While an all-day workshop scheduled for this Saturday, March 2, could change the 2002-2003 budget total, at press time the proposed budget stood at $15,091,234 – a 5.7 percent increase over this year’s, or an addition of $815,583.

That equals an additional $1.27 per thousand on the tax rate, or an estimated $250 on a home valued at $200,000. The current town rate is $21.70.

At a budget workshop Tuesday night, board members characterized their request as “conservative” and “responsible,” and suggested that town spending be cut in other areas.

“If the Town Council is really serious about cutting the budget, maybe they would consider giving back their salaries,” said board member Jennifer DeSena.

Each councilor gets $350 a year, plus Social Security, according to Town Manager Michael McGovern, making the total annual cost to the town $2,637 for the seven councilors.

There are three major factors behind the budget increase: salary raises and increased expenditure for benefits for existing staff; increased staffing
to keep class sizes optimal and adequately serve students in special education programs; and a 24 percent cut in state funding to the district. “Eighty cents of the tax increase is due to the loss of state subsidy,” said business manager Pauline Aportria.

The district will add 2.5 full-time-equivalent positions among the regular staff, and 3.9 full-time-equivalents in special education.

Benefits for existing staff will not be expanded, but continue to become more expensive, said Superintendent Tom Forcella, and will cost 17 percent more next year than they do this year. This year’s budget included a 7 percent increase in benefits spending over last year.

The personnel expenses will cost $838,583 in combined salary and benefits, and services and portable classrooms, related to the planned construction projects at the high school and Pond Cove, will cost $80,000. The district also will spend $59,500 to purchase a bus – an expense budgeted for but not spent this year.

While the budget increases total $978,083, the overall increase is less than this amount, because of energy conservation and lower energy costs, reductions in debt service and smaller cutbacks throughout the district.

The district will get $589,598 less in state funding than it did this year, a decrease of 23.64 percent. Reserve money from this year’s planned bus purchase and additional state funds held over from this year will carry over to offset some expenses.

A proposal to charge student activity fees at the middle school and high school, projected to raise between $50,000 and $60,000, was tabled. Board members expressed “philosophical objections” to charging such a fee.

Spending has been reduced throughout the district, including in the professional development program, which had been slated to include additional resource staff in each building. Other additions also have been eliminated, including a computer lab technician for the high school, athletic support at the middle school and world language at Pond Cove.

“There are no new programs in this budget,” Forcella said.

Instead, 76 percent of the budget will be dedicated to salary and benefits. He said the district is remaining true to its plans for the future. “We are addressing our strategic goals with this budget,” Forcella said, but warned against continuing cutbacks and neglecting programs that already are planned or even begun.

“How much can we afford to put it off?” he asked.

The School Board began to prepare its defense of the budget Tuesday, anticipating questions from the Town Council and suggesting changes to PowerPoint presentations and other documents that would help clarify the issues when they are presented to the council.

One assumption in this budget proposal is that class sizes stay within the district’s limits, as set in 1987 and largely unchanged since then.

“It’s based on some pretty solid quality education principles,” said board Chairman George Entwistle.

Entwistle, like Forcella, noted the danger of not funding programs begun in previous years. “We begin to not realize the full value of the investments that we’ve made earlier,” he said, making specific reference to slower-than-planned increases in technology support staff. The computers and other equipment are already in the schools.

One hidden bugaboo not addressed in the budget is disposal of old computer equipment, now stored in closets and spare space throughout the district. Computers are frequently classified as hazardous waste, because some components contain mercury or other heavy metals, according to Gary Lanoie, the district’s technology coordinator.

The athletics budget also includes $5,000 for a new pole-vault pit, needed to replace the current high school pit, “which may be illegal,” according to high school Principal Jeff Shedd.