Thursday, February 27, 2003

Cape warns school support slipping

Published in the Current

Facing a $486,000 cut in state education funding, the Cape Elizabeth School Board is proposing a 2003-2004 budget with no new programs, and the superintendent is warning that Cape schools are “falling behind” in their ability to meet the community’s high expectations.

Based on Gov. John Baldacci’s proposed budget, the Cape school budget, up 2.75 percent over this year’s total, would result in a 4.06 percent tax increase. District statistics indicate that if state funding were kept constant, the tax increase would be 0.23 percent. Baldacci’s budget has yet to be approved by the Legislature.

Several town councilors had asked the School Board for no more than a 2 percent tax rate increase.

Superintendent Tom Forcella told School Board members at a workshop Tuesday night that he did not hear a consensus from the council on that. “What I heard at that meeting were two or three council members” asking for the 2 percent cap, he said.

There is new spending in the budget, to provide additional help to meet Maine Learning Results and the federal No Child Left Behind requirements, as well as adding legally required special education staff members.

Enrollment at the three schools is expected to be flat, meaning no regular teaching positions will be added or cut.

The $15,328,320 budget also restores half of the capital improvement funding cut from this year’s budget. Additionally, it uses $200,000 in savings from a spending freeze last year to offset revenue shortfalls. The board had previously asked the council to use that $200,000 to make urgent repairs at the high school.

Forcella said the proposed budget is not enough to halt a slide in Cape’s education spending, and he painted a picture of crisis in Cape’s financial support of the schools.

“We’re not even maintaining where we’ve been,” he said. “We’re falling behind.”

Citing the community’s pride in the quality of its schools, Forcella made it clear the district wants to be able to spend more money. “If our expectation is to be the best, we need to have the resources to get us there.”

He said further cuts will jeopardize the quality of the schools, including its highly successful music program, which recently won acclaim at the Berklee Jazz Festival in Boston.

“(Low spending) will take a toll at some point in time,” Forcella said.

Forcella reiterated his concerns that Cape’s per-pupil spending is dropping, as compared with other districts in Cumberland County and around the state, including many to which the district often compares itself.

“We have people who want the highest performing district” but are not supporting it with the financial backing given to other high-performing districts, Forcella said.

Board member Kevin Sweeney said the per-pupil comparison shows a very different view from statistics the Town Council has recently cited, indicating that Cape Elizabeth has higher education spending per capita than any other town in Maine.

Despite his misgivings, Forcella put forward a budget that includes no new programs, and incorporates several cost-saving initiatives.

The proposed budget includes savings of nearly $20,000 by sharing a psychologist with Cumberland and North Yarmouth rather than contracting out those services,

It also assumes two large construction projects – renovations to Pond Cove and the high school – will not go forward in time to avoid using portable classrooms.

Business Manager Pauline Aportria told the board the budget included savings of $57,000 in architectural fees for the two projects. “We don’t need Bob Howe,” the project architect, Aportria said. The budget does include $10,000 for architectural work related to putting portable classrooms at Pond Cove.

One possible variable is the cost of heating oil. The budget assumes the district will be able to purchase oil for $1 per gallon, but it has not yet been able to lock in a price with any suppliers, Aportria said.

Possible areas for future cuts include athletics and the technology budget, according to board member George Entwistle. “This is going to be a tough year. We may need to make some tough choices,” he said.

The technology budget presently includes money to purchase a student information system, which would track students in all grade levels, keeping records of attendance, grades and progress toward the Maine Learning Results.