Thursday, April 11, 2002

Cape residents oppose user fees in schools

Published in the Current

Cape Elizabeth residents are against participation fees for school activities, but have few new suggestions for ways to cut the school budget this year.

At a School Board public meeting April 8, about 50 Cape residents met in the middle school cafetorium to address the question posed by School Board
member Jim Rowe: “Should the Cape Elizabeth school department consider implementing certain fees for extra-curricular and co-curricular activities at the high school and the middle school?”

If fees were implemented, participating high school students would pay $100 per year to cover all activities, and middle schoolers would pay $60 per year. There would be a family cap of $200. Activities affected would include all interscholastic sports and school activities that involve a lot of travel, including jazz bands and speech and debate clubs.

The majority of those attending the hearing opposed the fees, and e-mails sent in by people unable to attend were “running two-to-one against” fees, according to Superintendent Tom Forcella.

But the meeting brought renewed focus to Cape’s budget crisis, the worst ever. Cuts in state funding for Cape Elizabeth have resulted in a loss of nearly $450,000 in this year’s general purpose aid to education. Just making up that increase with property taxes would raise the tax rate 61 cents per thousand, hitting a homeowner with property valued at $200,00 with an additional $121 in property taxes.

“It’s the largest cut we’ve ever received from the state,” said Town Manager Michael McGovern.

The question, he said, is with a large number of homes in town without children, how much of the school budget should be passed on to taxpayers.

The School Board is expecting the Town Council to request a budget cut of an unspecified amount, Forcella said. The board is trying to sort out where cuts should be made.

Right now, the overall school budget is up 5.3 percent while the council had asked for a cap of 3 percent. At the meeting’s outset, Forcella, Rowe, board member Kevin Sweeney and Athletic Administrator Keith Weatherbie defended the budget and expressed frustration at state funding levels for education.

“For four years I have sat in January budget meetings and warned this community that we were getting killed by the state,” Sweeney said.

The situation now is so dire, he said, “we don’t know what else to do.”

“We are very near the bottom of our barrel of ideas,” Rowe said. Further cuts would hurt school programs, he said, so the question was “what’s going to be the least negative way” to handle the expected budget reduction.

“If not participation fees, then what?” Rowe asked.

Everything was discussed from raising money to increasing class sizes, and crossed the line into criticism of some town spending on recent projects.

Throughout the meeting, several people attempted a call-to-arms of Cape residents to fight Augusta for more school money.

Residents, concerned about rising property taxes forcing seniors out of town, searched for other ways to cut the budget without charging students fees, which many in the group felt didn’t belong in public education.

Among the suggestions were real - locating some funds from the town side to help the schools, providing fee exemptions for students participating in a small number of activities, and increasing class sizes.

Ken Johnson suggested cigarette companies, saying, “Philip Morris cannot give away the money that they have allocated for extracurricular activities.”

One resident asked what the impact would be on property taxes if the tax rate were used to make up the $50,000 participation fees are expected to raise for the district.

When told it would cost an additional $14 for a home valued at $200,000, she said, “Fourteen dollars a year is too much to ask Cape Elizabeth residents to pay?”

Derek Roy, a student at the high school, said he would not have joined the swim team if a fee had been required, and he thinks other students would also limit their activities to ease their family budgets.

“That closes a lot of doors for kids,” Roy said.

Allon Kahn, president of the high school’s Student Advisory Council, agreed. “Colleges these days almost require a great amount of extracurricular activities,” he said. Because figuring out what you’re good at takes time and a few tries, “it’s not right to close doors to kids that want to try things,” he said.

Town Council Chair Ann Swift-Kayatta appealed for help. “We need to keep the schools excellent in Cape Elizabeth,” she said. But at the same time, she wanted to keep taxes as low as possible. She warned of asking too much of Cape residents who are not parents.

Town Councilor Mary Ann Lynch asked how the board could be talking about cuts if the budget was projected to increase over 5 percent.

Sweeney explained that just by maintaining the current level of programs, without adding anything new, costs were rising, especially in the areas of salary and benefits.

Another resident asked if this would mean parents could spend less money. She had paid more than $200 each year for her kids’sports, in what she called “voluntary participation fees.” Forcella said booster fees would still be extras, and the school fees would offset the operation of the athletic program, rather than funding warm-up suits and training trips.

Sharlan Andrews owns a home in town but often travels with her husband on business. She said each time she returns to town she sees something new. Last year it was the town hall, she said, and this year it was the new police station. But now she hears there is pressure on the school budget. “Somewhere we’re having a budget breakdown in this town,” Andrews said.

Sweeney said it was citizen apathy that led to this problem. “We didn’t do anything,” he said, when the problem became clear several years ago. “Your Town Council and your School Board can’t do this alone. It’s up to you,” he said.

Sweeney admitted Cape can’t cry “poverty” with any kind of credibility, “but does that make it right to take money away from us?” he asked.

He suggested raising this issue with political candidates for statewide and national office. “Write to people who want to be governor,” he said.

High school English teacher Hannah Jones asked the community to be clear about its priorities, such as small classes and strong extracurricular activities, but warned that cuts were looming. “We are going to have to find some money somewhere,” Jones said.

“These are the budget years that really show a town’s commitment to the schools,” she said. “We need to make sure we don’t take (the shortfall) out of the kids’ hides.”

John Delahanty said he wanted to see more state support for Cape schools. “We’re paying a lot into the state, and we don’t get that much back,” he said. He wouldn’t want kids to have to make choices that would cost their parents even more money.

In response to a question about the Cape Elizabeth Education Foundation and its potential role in easing the budget crunch, Forcella said that is not the purpose of the foundation. Instead, he said, the foundation’s money is to cover expenses that are not normally in the operating budget, rather than items cut from the budget in a tight year.

Town Councilor Jack Roberts said he saw two main causes of the crunch. First, he said, “we wouldn’t even be here tonight if the state and federal governments were meeting their obligations.” And second, the lack of a business tax base in Cape means homeowners bear a high burden for school costs.

David Peary, a French teacher at the high school and also a Cape resident, said he would support the fees if only to set an example for the people in town who do not have kids in the school.

“This is the chance to tell the Town Council that parents care enough to pay even more,” he said. If the schools are asking everyone in town to “dig deep,” he said, parents should demonstrate their willingness to dig even deeper.