Thursday, May 23, 2002

Cape Elizabeth reaches accord on school budget

Published in the Current

Cape Elizabeth School Board members are breathing a little easier now that they have some financial help from the Town Council. The town has agreed to pay $25,000 from this year’s budget to replace the high school’s walk-in freezer, which has been deemed a safety hazard.

That takes pressure off the School Board, which had included that item in next year’s already tight budget. Several councilors had questioned the need for a new freezer.

But in a joint letter to the town and the public, the finance committee chairs of the two bodies laid out a plan by which the freezer will be replaced and
school spending will be capped at 4.5 percent, rather than 4 percent as previously requested by the council.

The total school expenditure for next year under the new plan will be $14,918,677. The tax increase for residents, covering both the school and municipal budgets, will be 94 cents per thousand dollars of assessed property value.

The School Board’s original expenditures were to be $15,038,234, an increase of 5.34 percent. The council asked that amount be taken down to $14,846,677, an increase of 4 percent.

The board counter-proposed expenditures of $14,877,234 – a 4.2 percent increase, by making cuts in maintenance, field trip transportation expenses and the school’s portion of the freshman athletic program at the high school. A further $33,000 in savings was found in reductions of energy and telephone costs, without affecting school programs.

Some of the savings were also found by using $70,000 in surplus as additional revenue that would not impact the town’s tax rate.

The board feared it might be required to cut an additional $30,000 in spending, or perhaps even $100,000 if spending that surplus money was not approved by the council.

After the two finance chairs reviewed the budgets, they agreed that the board could use $70,000 in surplus money, and that the town would buy the freezer using money from the municipal general fund.

They also found $2,000 that the town had earmarked for the schools to support the computer network, which the School Board had not included as revenue.

After the $33,000 energy and phone savings, the board was left to cut $61,557, of which $58,000 had already been tentatively identified. At the School Board workshop meeting May 21, board Chairman George Entwistle said Superintendent Tom Forcella had been able to find $3,557 in additional cuts from the central office budget by reducing spending on custodial supplies, advertising, equipment, transportation and contracted services.

That left the board to review the $58,000 in cuts. The main issue the board discussed was how to restore some funding to freshman athletics.

The schools expected to pay $8,000 for coaches’ stipends. Briefly on the table were activity participation fees, discussed as a potentially better alternative than cutting programs, and the middle school’s outdoor education program trips to Kieve and Chewonki.

Entwistle also proposed expanding the degree to which parents pay for some of their children’s educational experiences, effectively moving some costs from taxpayers to the users of those services, he said.

“I suspect that we’re going to have to get more creative with that as we move through the next several years,” Entwistle said.

Board member Elaine Moloney pointed out that cutting freshman athletics funding put a greater burden on sports boosters at a time the School Board was trying to decrease the role of booster clubs in town.

In response to proposed reductions in funding for outdoor education, board member Jennifer DeSena defended the Kieve and Chewonki programs as important parts of the curriculum that the schools should fund more, not less.

The schools presently pay $2,500 in tuition costs for each program, with the remainder being picked up by parents of the students who go. They either pay from their own pockets or run fund-raisers to collect the money needed.

The board concluded its discussion by asking high school Principal Jeff Shedd, middle school Principal Nancy Hutton, Forcella and Athletic Administrator Keith Weatherbie to meet to find $8,000 in reductions, of which “the lion’s share” could come from freshman athletics, Entwistle said. The goal would be to restore some funding to that program and “share the pain,” he said.

The board agreed that the Kieve and Chewonki programs are exempted from that review and will not be cut. Entwistle also said he plans to write a letter to the Town Council expressing “something between acknowledgement and gratitude” for the council’s help in what he called “this difficult and challenging time.”

At the end of the meeting, Moloney encouraged members of the board to review the town’s budget. She admitted it was too late to do much this year, but said she would watch town spending carefully.

After looking through the proposed budget, she said, “I was really surprised by a lot of their line items. I can’t believe how much more we’re cutting and bleeding.”

The final amount of the school and municipal budgets will be set by the Town Council after a public hearing at 7:30 p.m., May 28, at the Town Council Chambers in Town Hall.