Thursday, March 7, 2002

Cape blames state for budget woes

Published in the Current

The Cape Elizabeth School Board projects its budget increase will be twice the amount requested by the Town Council, and councilors and board members alike are blaming state funding cuts for the fiscal crunch.

Town Council Finance Committee Chairman Jack Roberts delivered a letter to Superintendent Tom Forcella March 1 stating the town budget would be
capped at a 3 percent rise in expenditures, and expressing the hope that the School Board would exercise “similar restraint.”

The School Board, at its workshop March 2 and in prior meetings, has characterized its budget – up 5.7 percent – as “responsible” and “conservative,” and blames a lot of the budget pain on a loss of $589,598 in state funds.

The state funding formula takes into account a town’s property value increases and the number of students in a district. The state cuts are particularly painful for cities such as South Portland, which is projected to lose nearly $2 million in state aid.

Cape’s school budget request is up $815,583, and includes no new programs. Several planned staffing increases also have been cut, with the only remaining personnel increases related to enrollment increases or additional needs for special education students.

“Some people think we cut the budget too much,” said School Board member Kevin Sweeney.

“We made every effort to keep a tight hold on spending,” Forcella said. The letter from the Town Council, he said, “just reinforces the tight budget climate that we’re in.”

At the budget workshop, Forcella said, a major concern was about the items that are not in the budget, including the district’s Future Direction Plan and five-year staffing plan.

“There’s a lot left out of this budget,” he said.

Sweeney is among the most outspoken of the critics of the state government, saying the education funding system is designed to cause problems.

“Because of the way the state funding formula is set up, it creates divisiveness,” Sweeney said. He added that while representatives in Augusta are working hard for their constituents, “they are not working hard for education in the state of Maine.”

Board member Jim Rowe also voiced his concern. “Anytime you have something like that pulled out from under you, it really affects what you’re doing,” he said.

Rowe and Forcella both wish the state cuts could have been phased in, rather than coming all at once this year. Forcella said he doesn’t see much of a cushion coming from Augusta to soften the blow, and expressed concern that the legislature had “never funded education as much as they said they would.”

Rowe sent an e-mail to state Sen. Lynn Bromley, D-Cumberland, and got a response that indicated to him “nobody in Augusta wants to hear about” the problems in Cape Elizabeth, Rowe said.

“I think they have to hear that we have needs,” Rowe said.

Bromley said she has trouble getting sympathy for Cape Elizabeth in Augusta, and said she has been called a “thief” by at least one senator from the northern area of the state, who was opposed to her efforts to bring more money to her district.

Bromley said she and other senators have promised to vote against the governor’s budget unless it is revised to give more funding to schools in their districts. “The formula does not work,” she said.

“I encourage people to make their voices heard,” Bromley said, suggesting that people describe exactly what will happen if funding cuts continue.

But, state Rep. Janet McLaughlin, D-Cape Elizabeth, said, there must be perspective. “I cannot sit here in the house chamber and cry ‘poor’ for Cape Elizabeth,” McLaughlin said. She said she is trying to increase the amount of money to be spent on schools, no matter what method is used to determine how much each school gets.

Several of the town’s councilors, too, blame the state for the hardship and are stuck trying to make up the difference from the property tax.

Councilor Jack Roberts, who attended the budget workshop, said the drastic cut is too much. “It’s just wrong, wrong, wrong,” Roberts said. “We’re getting hammered by the state.”

He said he was hoping the schools could keep expenditures below 3 percent, regardless of revenue. The state cuts only make things worse.

“Obviously (the School Board has) no control over the $600,000,” Roberts said.

Making things especially hard this year is the increase in special education spending in the school district, Roberts said. The federal government pledged to pay 40 percent of the cost of special education, but is actually only paying 12 percent, Roberts said.

He said there will certainly be a tax increase in town, though he declined to predict specific figures.

“We’re going to try to keep it as reasonable as we can,” he said.

Councilor Mary Ann Lynch, who also attended the School Board’s budget workshop Saturday, said she was glad to get at least an informal look at the budget, but declined to comment on the specifics until she saw a formal document.

Council Chair Anne Swift-Kayatta was at the budget meeting as well, and though she declined to comment on specifics, said she looks forward to working with the School Board and the Town Manager to put together a successful budget.

But the bottom line, many say, is just that: the bottom line, and the effect of the state budget on local spending.

“When you pull that much money in one fell swoop, it causes problems,” Rowe said.