Deep cuts possible in Scarborough school budget

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SCARBOROUGH – School Superintendent David Doyle has presented the Scarborough Board of Education with a choice of three proposals for the new school budget – all reflecting the dismal fiscal reality facing town schools because of cuts in state aid in the economic recession.

The options include one proposal that would increase the current $35 million budget by about $1.7 million, simply to maintain existing programs and staff and account for an increase in fixed costs such as health and dental insurance. The other two choices are for budgets that would reduce the current level of school spending – the options are budgets of $34.6 million and $34 million – but which would require significant cuts in staffing and programs like foreign language, art and music.

Doyle offered the three proposals to the board last week. Preliminary discussion by the school board’s Finance Committee at a meeting Feb. 12 indicated that the group primarily favored much of the middle-range proposal of $34.6 million that Doyle presented. However, group members said they would make some changes in which staff and programs should and shouldn’t be cut.

The committee, made up of board members Robert Mitchell, Colleen Staszko and Christopher Brownsey, made it clear at its meeting that developing a budget for the 2010-2011 school year is an unpleasant task.

“I think the Finance Committee is going to have a budget that’s pretty unpopular with the community,” Brownsey said.

The committee is considering recommending measures that include cutting some art and music teaching positions as well as library staff at all school levels, cutting foreign language teachers in grades 3-5 and the middle school, instituting some pay-to-play provisions for extra-curricular activities, and having high school class sizes that could range from 25 to 29 students in many instances.

Mitchell, who is chairman of the Finance Committee, said that, with some exceptions, having larger classes is better than eliminating course offerings.

The committee also appears to be leaning toward recommending the elimination of one of the two assistant principal positions at the high school, and not giving central office support staff a proposed 3 percent raise.

The committee is in the process of crafting some budget recommendations to bring to the full school board at a public hearing and first reading vote on the budget, scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 25, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.

Committee members stressed they only have the power to recommend what the board should do.

“None of this is final,” Staszko said after the committee’s meeting. “It has to go to the full board. They could add everything back.”

Still, the committee says dramatic cuts in the budget are necessary to help make up for sharp reductions in state education aid.

School officials have just recently completed the process of staunching a $1.1 million hole in this year’s school budget, caused by a curtailment in state funding. The schools cut back on discretionary spending and took such measures as cutting some spring sports at the middle school and high school.

Now, however, preliminary figures from the state indicate that Scarborough will lose more than $2 million in state aid in the new school budget, which will take effect on July 1. The cuts in state education aid are one of the measures lawmakers in Augusta are imposing as they grapple to address a state budget shortfall of about $400 million.

The Finance Committee initially told Doyle it would like to see what a budget proposal that was as much $1.5 million less than the current $35 million budget would look like.

He returned with the three options.

One, a proposal of nearly $37 million that he terms the “Level 1” budget, would increase spending by about $1.7 million or 4.82 percent over this year’s level.

Doyle said that budget would allow the schools to “maintain our existing program with minimal expansion.” That budget also includes funding for expected increases in health costs of 12 percent and dental costs of 5 percent. Additionally, that budget includes funding for the school board to complete negotiating outstanding contracts with school staff. Contracts with groups ranging from teachers to administrators, bus drivers, custodians and food service workers all expired last summer.

The two other proposals Doyle presented call for reductions in spending.

A $34.6 million “Level 2” budget would be about $600,000 or 1.62 percent below current spending levels.

His “Level 3” budget of about $34 million, would be $1.1 million or 3.25 percent less that the current budget.

The Finance Committee members at their Friday meeting said, that in many cases, they would endorse the Level 2 cuts Doyle has proposed.