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Gorham facing budget battles

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Posted: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 4:56 pm

GORHAM – As a proposed 2013-14 Gorham school budget is nearly ready to be unveiled, the issue of all-day kindergarten might heat up again this year.

Superintendent Ted Sharp will not release any details this week for his proposed new budget that he’ll roll out Wednesday, March 13, so it’s not known whether the spending plan would include expanding the district’s present half-day kindergarten program. The chairman of the kindergarten committee that studied the proposal isn’t talking yet, either.

Sharp will present his budget to school committee members at 7 p.m. in Gorham Municipal Center, 75 South St. The school committee will scrutinize Sharp’s budget in an all-day workshop on Saturday, March 23.

“Safe to say this is the most challenging budget in my tenure as a superintendent in both Falmouth and Gorham,” Sharp said this week.

In a school budget battle last year, Gorham voters, despite a plea by all-day kindergarten proponents, ratified a $32.2 million pending plan that rose $1 million without budgeting for all-day kindergarten.

Meanwhile, on the municipal side, Town Manager David Cole will hand town councilors his proposed budget in the regular monthly meeting at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 2. Cole said budget workshops are scheduled for Thursday, April 4, and Tuesday, April 9.

But in an unusual move this week, Councilor Suzanne Phillips, chairwoman of the council’s Finance Committee, asked for a workshop on Tuesday, March 19, to discuss the municipal budget even before Cole presents his. The proposal was backed by Philip Gagnon, council chairman.

Town Councilor Matthew Robinson objected to the idea and pointed out the council could not vote in a workshop.

Phillips said Wednesday the budget discussion would allow councilors to offer suggestions, opinions and guidance about the budget, but wouldn’t entail specific details or cuts. Discussion would afford an opportunity to hear Cole’s approach to the budget process, she said.

“It’s not a typical budget year,” Phillips said.

Phillips said residents are worried about taxes and are asking questions about whether jobs would be cut. “I’d like to keep them informed,” Phillips said.

The televised workshop in the chambers will be open to the public and residents might even have an opportunity to speak, Phillips said. A time for the workshop had not been set Wednesday by the American Journal deadline.

Following Tuesday’s meeting, Gagnon said the workshop also would include discussion of the state’s proposed budget plan to cut revenue sharing to the town.

A year ago, the council approved a $12.1 million municipal budget (not including the county tax), representing a slight increase over the previous year’s $11.9 million.

Last fall, the School Committee formed the All-Day Kindergarten Advisory Committee to review the feasibility of instituting an all-day kindergarten from a half-day program. But now on the threshold of a new school budget, the kindergarten committee, which has met for months, appears tardy in providing its findings, such as costs.

The nine-member panel, which first met in October, had been scheduled to report its recommendations to Sharp in November, according to the school department’s website.

“The recommendation will be made to the School Committee at our March workshop on the 27th,” School Committee member Dennis Libby, who chairs the kindergarten fact-finding committee, said this week. “There has been some chatter about the recommendation and its contents, but it is not appropriate to discuss any of the details until the workshop.”

In the regular school committee meeting Feb. 13, Libby said the sub-committee had met nine or 10 times.

“We have not made a decision one way or another,” Libby said then.

When Sharp rolls out his budget next week, Gorham School Committee members could hear some gloomy figures. Expansion of the kindergarten program could fall victim, as the budget situation appears bleak for many school districts bracing for subsidy reductions from the state.

The amount of state funding to support Sharp’s proposed Gorham school budget remained uncertain this week.

“It is like rolling out a budget with blinders on,” Sharp said in a School Committee meeting last month.

Gorham School Department has already tightened its belt. In the past five years, the department has cut some 55 positions, albeit many were eliminated through attrition.

For the current year, Gorham School Department was approved for a total of $17.6 million from the state in general purpose aid, adult education and debt service funds to subsidize the department’s $32.2 million spending. But, the school department got hit with a $157,531 curtailment, Sharp said recently.

And more bad news could be coming. In the Town Council meeting on Tuesday, Kyle Currier, chairwoman of the School Committee, said another $225,000 curtailment is expected.

“We are still waiting for information from the state,” Currier said.

Several parents spoke in favor of all-day kindergarten at last month’s School Committee meeting. Resident Kate Thomas said a half-day program is not acceptable. And Stacy Smith advocated for an all-day program.

“This has to happen,” Smith said, “It’s the best thing for our kids.”

Unofficial information from a parents’ group last year put start-up and personnel costs of implementing all-day kindergarten for Gorham at $382,000. Proponents of all-day kindergarten urged Gorham voters to reject the school budget because it didn’t include the program. But the voters approved the school spending plan without all-day kindergarten.

The school budget requires School Committee and Town Council approval before it goes to local voters in a referendum this year scheduled for Tuesday, June 11. The same day, Gorham voters will be asked to borrow $6.3 million to build a new public safety complex on the site of the former Little Falls School on Acorn Street. With $1,984,500 for interest, the total estimated debt is $8,284,500.

And in November, the School Committee could seek voters’ approval in a referendum for a multi-million dollar expansion and renovation of Gorham High School. The Town Council on Tuesday approved a school department request for the town to loan it $75,000 to plan the high school project.

The Gorham School Department plans a public presence with a booth this year at Gorham Marketplace on Saturday, March 30.

Welcome to the discussion.