Westbrook school budget passes by wide margin

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WESTBROOK — Voters Tuesday overwhelmingly approved the $38.6 million school operating budget, which easily passed in each of the city’s five wards.

The budget, which was approved by 70 percent of the voters, represents a $2.3 million, or 6.4 percent, increase over the current school budget. Taxpayers will be asked to foot $20.4 million of that figure, a $1.5 million, or 8.3 percent, increase over current year.

“I am really pleased with the results and grateful,” Superintendent Peter Lancia said Wednesday morning. “I am especially pleased with the margin of the yes votes. I know it was a hard budget season and a long budget season.”

Ward 3 resident Terry Bryson, a teacher at Great Falls Elementary School in Gorham, said support of the school budget is “so imperative right now.” Bryson was one of the 2,332 voters who approved the budget.

“I definitely see the need for the budget,” she said as she exited to polls at Westbrook High School Tuesday morning. “With the growing number of students, we need as much support as we can for the schools.”

Though he was happy to support the school spending plan, Bill Williams would like to see even more funding allotted to the schools.

“I don’t think we are funding our schools enough at the state, federal and local levels,” said Williams, a resident of Ward 2, where 72 percent of voters approved the budget.

Williams said he would like to see teachers get a pay raise and more funding for music and the arts, instruction he said was “instrumental” to his daughters, one of whom works as a music teacher in the Mount Ararat School System.

Ward 3 resident Kelly Day was one of the 322 voters in her ward to support the budget, putting her faith in the School Committee to develop an appropriate budget.

“I trust them to do what’s best for our community and out kids. I am all for learning and education,” she said.

Dwayne McCrillis, also of Ward 3, said his child is not yet school age, but it still was important to him to vote in favor of the school budget.

“I voted yes to approve the school budget, absolutely,” he said. “I have a 3-year-old who will be coming up through the system, so I think we need to approve it. Westbrook is a good schools system. I went through it.”

While the budget found strong support across the city, close to 30 percent, or 991 voters, opted to reject the budget, including Timothy Fecteau, a resident of Ward 1. Fecteau said he voted against the budget, as he has in previous years, due to his concern with increasing property taxes.

Increased taxes were also a concern for John Griffin, who moved into Ward 4 a year ago.

“I understand all the communities want top-shelf education, but every year, it’s a (tax increase). I just came from Portland, so I am used to it, but it is tough to balance. It’s the same in every community,” he said.

Lancia said voters who opposed the budget can be assured the school department will “be careful stewards of funding” and said his door is always open for residents to talk to him about things going on in the schools.

“(The vote) shows to me the community is supportive of the schools as they always have been and supports the work we are doing, the initiatives we have and the direction we are taking,” he said.

The largest budget drivers in the budget, Lancia said, were a $900,000 bond payment for school construction projects at Saccarappa School and Westbrook Middle School, $235,000 in security improvements at the high school and four new staff positions – two STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teachers, a social worker and a lunch duty aide at Westbrook Middle School. Director of Operations Dean Flanagin said the security improvements are targeted at door and access control. In a letter to the school community Lancia said the budget also includes “higher than expected costs for employee benefits and contractual obligations.”

Lancia said the hiring of the new STEM teachers, who will split time between the three elementary schools, is part of the district’s multi-year effort to increase the science, technology, engineering and math offerings across Westbrook schools. The 2017-18 school year saw an investment of such instruction at the high school and an investment is planned for the middle school for the 2019-20 school year.

“It’s always been one of our most popular programs. A number of our top 10 percent have chosen to pursue STEM. It’s about building that path for kids,” Lancia said.

Lancia said the hiring of the social worker is also part of a multi-year effort to better meet students’ social and emotional learning.

“This is not haphazard,” Lancia said of the investments. “These are all to address the needs of all our students.”

Michael Kelley can be reached at 781-3661 x 125 or mkelley@keepmecurrent.com or on Twitter @mkelleynews.

Voters from Wards 1 and 4 cast their ballots Tuesday evening at the Westbrook Community Center gymnasium.

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