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Westbrook gets first look at school budget

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Posted: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 6:48 pm

WESTBROOK – Westbrook residents could pay more in taxes this year to cover a proposed school budget that is $2.4 million more than this year’s spending plan.

The $33.3 million budget for 2013-14, if passed, equates to a 4.2 percent rise on the tax rate, or an additional $138.70 on a $190,000 home. The tax rate could increase more depending on the city budget, which has not been presented yet.

However, said School Superintendent Marc Gousse, “as we continue the process, that number will probably go down.”

The 2012-13 budget is $30.9 million, which is a slight increase on the 2011-12 budget of $30.85 million. For the past two years, the proposed budgets initially presented were ultimately scaled back.

During the past week, the School Committee and its finance committee have met twice to hear presentations from each department and discuss the proposals.

In total, $1.2 million is proposed in the budget for increases in salary and benefits and for new positions. Some of those positions have already been filled throughout the course of the year, including a noon duty aid and a bus driver. These job were not included in the current budget, and money from other areas was used to cover the hirings, Gousse said.

Gousse did not disclose the specific number of potential new hires, but said the positions could include teachers at the elementary level and in English Language Learners classrooms, new educational technicians at the middle school and high school and, at the administration level, a coordinator to work under Dean Flanagin, director of operations, and a grant writer/curriculum facilitator, who would work to bring more money into the district.

The $1.2 million also includes a potential 8 percent increase in health insurance and the possibility of having to cover $440,000 in Maine state retirement costs under Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed state budget. Last year, health insurance costs went up 4 percent.

“I had to plan for the worst-case scenario. If that doesn’t happen, we take it out of the budget,” Gousse said.

There are also some job cuts slated in the spending plan. The city employs five custodians to clean all municipal buildings, including the schools, but those jobs may be cut and the work outsourced. Gousse is recommending keeping one of those positions, which creates a cost to the district. Previously, custodial salaries came from the city budget. The superintendent recommended keeping one job for the elementary schools because having someone in the district who has a relationship with the students is an added value.

“Remember, the most important thing is we’re run a little different than a typical business or municipality because we have children and that’s a game changer,” Gousse said.

Gousse said the budget has been a work in progress since August, and the increases were directed by community feedback.

“This isn’t just me throwing numbers up on a board. The budget is vetted on what the community told us,” he said.

So far, those suggestions have translated into a proposed after-school program to improve literacy and upgrades to security at some of the schools.

A summer literacy program, unlike the grant-funded one aimed at underprivileged children being offered at the Westbrook Community Center, would be open to all students in kindergarten through fourth grade who need help with their reading. The price tag for the program is $53,500.

Approximately $10,000 is budgeted for upgrading security at each of the city’s school buildings, especially in monitoring who enters the buildings. Another $30,000 would pay for paving parking lots.

According to Gousse, there’s some good news from the school department’s annual audit report. On Wednesday, after the American Journal’s deadline this week, the Westbrook School Committee will vote whether to send back almost $763,000 to the city. The City Council had approved providing the school department with that money after it was learned the school budget did not include money for payroll two summers ago.

The funds were made up by the district being in a “controlled spending mode” the last two years, Gousse said. He said even though an expense may be budgeted for, he still reviews and signs off on every expenditure.

City Administrator Jerre Bryant said the money was allocated but never transferred. Now it appears the money is not needed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will go toward offsetting the city budget, either.

Gousse said about half the school budget funds come from the city and the other half from the state. The state numbers are based on student population, which is up slightly from last year, and valuation, which has gone down. He said general-purpose aid to the school from the state has increased about $1.2 million from the $12.6 million the district received for this year’s budget.

“When folks look at this, they might think, ‘Is this guy crazy? Is he out of his tree recommending a budget like this?’ There are some costs here that the School Committee and citizens don’t have control over. Some are contractual,” Gousse said.

The finance committee has scheduled an all-day budget workshop session Saturday, March 23, from 8 a.m.-3 p.m., at the Westbrook High School Auditorium.

Welcome to the discussion.