WESTBROOK — City Councilors are hoping the $40.3 million school budget that they approved Monday will be one voters can support at the school validation vote June 11.
The school spending plan is part of an overall $69.8 million city budget for fiscal year 2020, which runs July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020. Taxpayers will be asked to foot $38.7 million for city, school and county operations, a $1.2 million, or 3.3% increase over the current year.
The tax rate would increase by 50 cents to $20.45 per thousand valuation, meaning the owner of a $200,000 home would pay $4,090 in taxes, up $100 from this year, including $96 more to support the schools, essentially the same to support the municipal departments and $4 more to support county operations.
Keeping the tax rate increase to 50 cents, where voters would be comfortable, was the council’s goal, Councilor Mike Foley said. Since 2017, the tax rate has increased by $3.14, or 18 percent, which is an unsustainable trajectory, he said.
To get there, he and Council President Gary Rairdon had discussed cutting the school budget by half a million dollars. Instead the council on May 6, by a 3-2 vote (with Councilors Victor Chau and Brendan Rielly opposed and Council Vice President Anna Turcotte and Councilor Ann Peoples absent) decided to increase the town’s anticipated valuation by $15 million and ask the school department to reduce school spending by $150,000.
The $150,000 in school budget reductions include reducing the cost of the annual audit by $2,000; eliminating the school department’s share of the cost of running Channel 2 ($43,750); reducing the reserve for capital improvements by $30,000 and equipment by $13,400; delaying a $1,600 roof inspection at Central Office; reducing the copier maintenance account by $1,000 and the liability insurance rate by $35,000 and not purchasing a new school bus, a $23,200 saving.
On May 10, when the School Committee approved the reductions, Director of Operations Dean Flanagin assured members that the district can delay some capital improvements and the purchase of new bus without having a bus that is not roadworthy operating.
“There is a lot of need out there,” he said of capital improvements, “but since we are in a tough budget, I can find a way to defer some of the items.”
“None of the reductions seem to have a direct impact on students,” Foley said.
Alex Stone, a former School Committee member who lives on Clifford Street and operates Blaze’s Burgers on Main Street, warned against reducing the capital improvement/equipment budget. He said doing so means buildings and equipment will continue to age and he reminded the council that Prides Corner School had to be closed several years ago because it was in such disrepair.
“I do ask you to reconsider,” Stone said.
City Council Student Representative Sadie Cross said close to two-thirds of high students said the latest budget reduction would have a negative impact on them, according to a survey she conducted.
Cross said she understands local officials must develop a budget that provides the right level of service to residents while keeping in mind their ability to pay for it, but, like Stone, urged the council to reconsider.
“I would like the City Council to listen to the students because some of the students will be voting in a few years and this is important to them,” she said.
Councilors thanked Cross for her work to collect student feedback, but maintained by a 5-0 vote Monday that reducing the school budget by $150,000 was the right approach. Turcotte and Rielly, who the council earlier this year decided could vote on the final budget despite the fact his law firm represents the city, were absent.
Peoples said she understands “the sticker shock” residents gets when they see their tax bills, but investing in education is important.
“We need to view schools as one of the premier tools we have to drive business to this community. If we don’t have world class education, we can’t attract world class businesses. In the last five years Westbrook has grown exponentially in terms of development because we have marketed ourselves,” Peoples said. “To me, to not pass a cream of the crop school budget is shooting ourselves in the foot from an economic development standpoint.”
Superintendent Peter Lancia, a Westbrook school employee for close to 30 years, told the council what was before them was “just about as lean a budget as I have seen.”
“Regardless of the level of funding, we will do our best everyday to fulfill our mission of offering a world-class education,” he said.
With approval from the School Committee and City Council, the school budget will be passed on to voters June 11.
Michael Kelley can be reached at 780-9106 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mkelleynews.
The City Council adopted the 2019-2020 school year budget for the Westbrook School Department Monday after the School Committee cut $150,000 from its initial proposal.
The City Council adopted the 2019-2020 school year budget for the Westbrook School Department Monday after the School Committee cut an additional $150,000 from its budget.