Growth drives up Gorham school budget

275
Gorham Superintendent Heather Perry

Gorham Superintendent Heather Perry

GORHAM — The School Committee’s proposed budget, up more than $1.6 million, passed unanimously last week and its members, on bended knees, sent it to the Town Council.

The School Committee on April 12 with a 7-0 vote approved a $37.9 million budget, up 4.5 percent  from the $36.3 million the Town Council OK’d last year.

The School Committee that spent months examining the proposed budget  appeared last week somewhat apprenhensive about gaining Town Council approval this year. “I truly hope our Town Council will support this budget,” said School Committee member Sara Nelson.

The proposed budget is for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

“This budget represents what we need for our students,” Superintendent Heather Perry said before last week’s School Committee vote.

Contractural salary costs are up $750,000, representing a key “driver” in the school budget increase, according to Perry.

The budget would increase the town’s tax rate by 85 cents per thousand dollars of assessed valuation. The owner of a home valued at $300,000 would see a $255 increaswe in taxes over the course of a year.

The school budget requires approval by the Town Council and local voters in a referendum in June. The Town Council will meet with school officials in a joint workshop to discuss the budget on Tuesday, May 16.

School Committee member Tim Burns described this year’s budget process as by far the most challenging and he seeks a collaborative relationship with the Town Council. But, Burns said raising taxes a million dollars “year after year” is not sustainable.

The budget as passed by the School Committee is up $2.9 million from the $35 million approved in 2015.

The Town Council has the option of sending this year’s proposed budget back to the School Committee for a reduction. Dennis Libby, School Committee vice chairman, said he doesn’t know where to make cuts, if mandated to so by the Town Council.

The town is experiencing a population boom and schools are planning staff upgrades to teach more students. Enrollment is increasing at the elementary level, Perry said, and five new teachers have been added to the budget, accounting for $350,000 along with two additional education technicians, $70,000.

This year, enrollment increased by 67 students to 1,209 in its three, K-5 schools. In the coming school year, another 36 students are expected with 79 more elementary students the following year. “The amount Gorham is growing is incredible,” said School Committee member Suzanne Phillips.

School Committee member Kyle Currier said people are moving to Gorham because of schools and the growth of the town is related to the quality of the school system.

Schools are a good investment for the town, said School Committee member Stewart McCallister.

Growing student numbers are not the only budget driver. The proposed budget calls for spending $930,000 for capital improvements, up $325,000 from $605,000, for building maintenance at the district’s five schools. But, the budgeted figure falls short of the $2 million that Perry said it should be.

The state’s General Purpose Aid allotment for the local school district adds another worry. The School Committee’s budget reflects a projection of receiving $16.5 million in the state subsidy, up $263,000 from the $16.3 million it received last year.

But the figure hoped for looks like a placeholder and the School Committee is uneasy.  Libby said it is facing a threat of a cut in state subsidy.

“We have no idea what the General Purpose Aid will be,” Libby said.

The town will likely not know the state figures until after the Town Council and public votes.The Town Council will conduct a public hearing and a vote on the school budget on Tuesday, June 6. The school budget validation referendum is set for Tuesday, June 13.

Darryl Wright, School Committee chairman, said the state subsidy figures might not be known until the end of June. Wright encouraged parents to communicate with the Town Council and urged more parents be involved throughout the year.

“It has been a tough budget, but a good process,” Wright said.

Robert Lowell can be reached at 854-2577 or rlowell@keepmecurrent.com