Mary Ann Lynch knew it was going to be a long meeting.
“I borrowed my son’s Boggle timer,” said the Cape Elizabeth Town Council chairwoman, placing the sand-filled game timer on the table in front of her, in full view of the standing-room-only audience on hand at Monday night’s school budget hearing. “And that’s not because we don’t want to hear from you. It’s because we want to hear from all of you.”
Cape Elizabeth residents formed a line dozens-deep at the public hearing to address the Town Council’s proposed budget, in which staff and program cuts would lower the School Board’s 6 percent budget increase to a 4.6 percent increase for the 2008-2009 school year. The Town Council’s proposed school budget is $19.7 million; the School Board’s is $19.9 million. The difference between them is $263,000. The current school budget is $18.8 million.
Monday’s three-hour hearing precedes a May 27 Town Council meeting, when councilors will either adopt or amend the spending plan. On June 10, in accordance with the school consolidation law, residents will vote in referendum on the school.
In the Town Council’s version of the budget, more than five educational technicians, a writing teacher and the curriculum director would be eliminated. These cuts brought out several dozen students, who gathered outside the Town Hall prior to the hearing with protest signs.
“All of my friends wanted to come,” said Cape Elizabeth High School junior Tricia Thibodeau, who came to the hearing to urge town members to vote against the 4.6 percent increase. “I want the school to be as good as it can be, and I think the 6 percent increase will do that.”
Lisa Melanson, whose job as a writing teacher at the Cape Elizabeth High School’s Advancement Center would be eliminated, said at the hearing she thinks it would be a mistake not to support a 6 percent increase as suggested by the School Board.
“I fear for education if it’s not properly funded,” said Melanson, a parent of three children in the school system. “At the 4.6 level, it isn’t. There are cuts that will be severe, cuts that will harm our system.”
“I’m sad for the potential loss,” said Ginger Raspiller, director of the Advancement Center at Cape Elizabeth High School.
Debbie Fisher, who has three children in the the school system, spoke in opposition to the 4.6 percent increase.
“I believe that the School Board members are the experts on knowing what it takes to educate our children,” she said. “They recommend a 6 percent budget increase.”
After the hearing, Lynch, one of four councilors to support the 4.6 percent increase, said she was “listening very hard” to all viewpoints but said she was not swayed by the arguments she heard Monday night. Lynch said she understands some people perceive the proposed budget as a lack of the council’s commitment to education, and pointed out the 4.6 percent increase actually spends more per student than the 2007-2008 school budget.
According to Lynch, school enrollment will decrease by 60 students for the 2008-2009 school year. The current budget spends $10,551 per student; with the 4.6 percent increase, the number rises to $11,388.
“I would like nothing better than to give the School Board everything they ask for,” she said, but while many Cape Elizabeth residents would be able to afford to pay for a 6 percent increase, there are many who cannot.
“I had a taxpayer come in and tell me they had to cash their life insurance policy to pay for their taxes,” Lynch said.
Cape Elizabeth Town Manager Michael McGovern said before the hearing that while he understands a lot of people are upset about the 4.6 percent increase, only 35 percent of Cape Elizabeth homeowners have school-age children, and the people who would be speaking at the meeting would not represent the entire community.
According to Lynch, the Finance Committee’s proposed budget was approved by the Town Council with a 4-3 vote. She said she’s been on the council long enough to know “anything can happen.”
“I can’t speak for other councilors,” she said. “We’re continuing to listen.”
If the Town Council adopts the 4.6 percent increase on May 27, then voters will have their chance at the June 10 vote. In addition to voting to approve or deny the school budget, the ballot will contain another question, added by the Town Council, asking whether residents think the budget is too high or too low.
According to Lynch, if the school budget doesn’t pass on June 10, the process starts all over again.
Several dozen Cape Elizabeth students gathered outside Town Hall Monday evening before a budget hearing where parents and educators argued against the Town Council’s proposed budget for schools, which would lead to the elimination of more than five educational technicians, a writing teacher and the curriculum coordinator.