WESTBROOK — The School Committee finalized a budget last week with a level of reductions that made one member vote against it and others worry about what it would mean for students and school staff.
School Committee member Veronica Bates said she couldn’t “in good conscience vote” for the revised $40.5 million budget because the reductions made to Superintendent Peter Lancia’s proposed $41.2 million budget “are too deep.”
“Every year I sit in this room and we cut the budget. We never add,” said Bates, who has been on the committee for eight years. “Yes, the budget goes up, but it goes up because we don’t have a choice. We are extremely frugal when it comes to adding anything. We justify it 1,000 times over and still get crucified.”
The School Committee’s finance committee cut more than $700,000 from Lancia’s request by refining budget projections, paying for some positions through grant funding, reducing the amount of new spending, eliminating one-year teaching positions that are no longer needed and suspending the marketing program at Westbrook Regional Vocations Center.
Bates said she would like to see the committee invest more in the schools.
“If we don’t invest in ourselves, how can we expect others to invest in us? We do a huge disservice to our kids and staff when we ask them to tighten their belts until they can’t be tightened anymore,” she added.
The challenge, School Committee member Noreen Poitras said, is trying to balance the desires of people who are concerned with budget reductions and concerns of people like Poitras’ 75-year-old neighbor, who had to find a second job to afford tax increases.
“It is really tough, but I am proud of the work we have done,” Poitras said.
School Committee member Sue Salisbury told the public at an April 10 committee meeting that just because she and her colleagues approved the budget doesn’t mean they support or enjoy making the reductions.
“We get put in a position that causes us to make tough decisions. In a perfect world, we’d be able to add on all the positions we felt were necessary and add on programs,” she said, adding the School Committee decision is a matter of coming up with a budget that the City Council, and ultimately the voters, will support.
The most recent round of reductions included saving $12,000 by not renting space for programming at the Intercultural Community Center; reducing the innovation grants fund to $5,000; and making staff orientation a one-day event instead of a two-day event. There were further reductions to district-wide supplies, less mulch at Saccarappa School, a reduced projection for copier costs and $20,000 less in capital equipment among other items.
At the City Council finance committee’s first review of the school spending plan April 11, the group was divided on the funding request. Council President Gary Rairdon made a motion to reduce the school budget by another $500,000, but that idea was only supported by Councilor Mike Foley.
Foley said he is concerned about how the tax rate has grown over the last few years. Since fiscal year 2017, he said it has increased almost 20 percent.
“I think we can do something better to make things more affordable,” he said.
Councilor Brendan Rielly said the easiest way to change that trajectory of increased costs would be to reduce employees. Doing so, he said, would save money, but also have a severe impact on the community.
Councilor Ann Peoples said school districts are having to offer more mandated programs and services.
“We are either going to have to come up with a new philosophy for education or accept this is the cost of doing business,” she said.
The school budget now will be rolled into the total city budget, which will be reviewed at first reading by the City Council May 6. Second reading and adoption is set for May 13.
The total city spending plan stands now at $38.9 million for taxpayers, an increase of $1.3 million, or 3.7%, over the current year. The tax rate would be $20.69 per thousand valuation, meaning the owner of a $200,000 home would pay $4,138 in taxes, up $148 from this year, including $128 more to support the schools and $14 more to support the municipal departments.
The school validation vote is scheduled for June 11 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Michael Kelley can be reached at 780-9106 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mkelleynews.
The Westbrook School Committee voted last week to adopt a $40.5 million budget. Taxpayers would be asked to fund $21.6 million, or slightly more than 53 percent.