Thursday, May 16, 2002

Cape residents blast council on school cuts

Published in the Current

Over 40 residents turned out to give the Cape Town Council a piece of their minds this week about school funding cutbacks, blasting the group for approving expensive town buildings while cutting education funds. Two students were among the speakers.

Twenty-six of them spoke during public comments on the budget, including six School Board members and Superintendent Tom Forcella. All but two
defended the original school budget request, an increase of 5.34 percent, or a total of $15,038,234.

The council had requested the schools limit spending increases to 4 percent, asking for a total of $14,846,677. The School Board has responded with a revision, increasing spending 4.2 percent or $14,877,234.

Major issues at the council’s regular meeting held May 13 included budget priorities in town.

Superintendent Forcella and School Board Chairman George Entwistle also took issue with a numbers breakdown found in unsigned fliers distributed at the meeting.

Forcella presented a different picture of the budget, saying it is not the largest increase since 1995, but in fact the smallest increase in three or four years. He said the flier’s figures on average class size at the high school were wrong, and pointed out that high school teacher loads were increasing next year. Entwistle echoed those concerns, calling the numbers “misrepresented.”

“Putting together a budget in an uncertain economic climate is no fun,” said Jack Roberts, Town Council Finance Committee chair. The council also made an unpopular municipal cut, proposing the elimination of the town wide spring cleanup.

Several residents wondered what would be different next year, if anything, for the council, and whether the schools could expect more money or less in the future. Others said schools were important investments even in hard economic times, and recommended spending the money the schools requested.

Resident Frank Potenzo expressed concern that increasing taxes would drive senior citizens out of town. “I would think that the town would like to keep the retired people in their homes,” he said, arguing that seniors pay property taxes like everyone else, but don’t ask for many services.

Bonnie Steinroeder said disputes between town and school governing bodies were not helpful. “We are one community,” she said, adding that it is unproductive to set up budget disputes between “seniors in homes versus kids in schools.”

Gail Atkins spoke, criticizing recent town building projects to loud applause. “I think the money needs to go to the schools,” Atkins said.

School Board member Elaine Moloney said many of the town’s attractive features come at a price, including wetlands protection, little business, greenspace and new town buildings. “Is it to be at the expense of our schools?” Moloney asked.

Tyke MacColl, a student, complained that freshman athletics were being cut, and placed the $8,000 budget for them in contrast with the money for the “pile of rocks” outside the new police station. “Freshman sports are a lot more important,” MacColl said.

Student Grace McKenzie said she thought the police station was too big for a town that normally has two police officers on duty at any given time. “I don’t think we need that much,” she said.

Erin Grady Gallant said schools are why people move to Cape. “The schools are our most important resource besides our land and our children,” she said.

School Board member Jim Rowe had voted against the 5.34 percent budget to protest the state education funding formula, but now argued in support of the 4.2 percent revision.

“We will not be as good a school system under this budget as we are today,” he said, warning that “the state may not in fact be done with its rape of the Cape Elizabeth school system.”

Resident Ed McAleney spoke against cutting freshman sports. “If we cut programs for our children, then maybe we’ll have a real use for the police station for a change,” he said to laughter and applause. “We cannot turn our backs on our children because my parents never turned their backs on me,” he said.

Trish Brigham said she thought the original budget proposal cut too much, and said education spending is not a cost, but an “investment.”

“We’re investing in the quality of life that we have as a community, ” Brigham said.

Chris Kast said he is sad about the cuts and their impact on kids’ lives. “The investment we make in our school system and in our children is invaluable because it protects a precious asset,” he said.

Ed MacColl said many parents in Cape stress to their children how important education is. He said cutting the school budget in this way would send the wrong message to them, and tell them “bricks and mortar that look nice are more important than kids.”

Jim Barritt said he wanted school officials up late at night worrying about education, not money. Looking directly at a group of school staff in the audience, he said, “I think you guys should have every penny you think you need.”

Barritt also proposed a citizens’ committee be assembled to review the town and school finances, performing cost-benefit analyses and other studies to help town officials better understand what they were getting for their money.

School Board Chairman Entwistle said the council needs to regain the trust of the School Board. “It’s time to do what’s right,” he said. “And spending money on education, in my opinion, is always right.”

School Board Finance Committee Chairman Kevin Sweeney made the last comment of the public session, saying, “we can do no better at this point.” He said the community is a whole. “We will be judged by how we treat our youngest and our oldest, and keep in mind that we owe them both a fair shake,” Sweeney said.

Town Council Chairman Anne Swift-Kayatta had opened the comments session with a hope that cuts be made that not affect students. She ended the comments session by saying “this is a room full of people who support the schools,” but that the council has to “balance competing priorities” and decide how much of a spending increase to allow the schools in a year when enrollment is flat.

She said that the role of the School Board is to advocate for the schools, while the Town Council, she said, must look out for all citizens.

In other business, the council:
– Heard from Councilor Henry Berry that veterans may be eligible for low-cost prescriptions through the Veterans Administration.
– Approved a change to the town’s zoning ordinance intended to allow the Inn By The Sea to use parking at St. Bartholomew’s Church for special events.
– Decided to resurface the existing route of Fowler Road and use state money originally intended for widening and improving Fowler Road to continue repaving Route 77 near the Scarborough line.
– Authorized the town manager to apply for a sewer connection permit for 1226 Shore Road, the former community center, with the understanding that the new property owner would pay for the actual sewer connection.
– Doubled the rent of the Cape Courier’s office in Town Hall to $100 per month.
– Authorized a study of parking fees at Fort Williams. The study will be finished by Sept. 1, 2002.

The Town Council will hold a public hearing on all town and school budget issues at 7:30 p.m., May 28, in the Town Council chambers in Town Hall.