SCARBOROUGH - Five hours into a school budget workshop Saturday in Scarborough, just as directors and administrators were looking their most torpid and ready to tip below the tables, Jacquelyn Perry set off a bomb.
“I never thought I would say this – I am known in this town as a big spender as a member of this Board of Education – but there is no way I can bring this budget number forward to our community,” she said.
That brought everyone in the room to life in a spirited, 40-minute defense of a $3.75 million shift to local spending deemed “mission critical” by new Superintendent Dr. George Entwistle III, as part of his $38.22 million budget request for FY 2013.
That hike, which combines a $2.57 million increase in local spending with a $1.18 million drop in federal funding, is expected to jump property tax bills 12.9 percent, on top on any increase caused by municipal spending or county taxes.
That would be good for an extra $390 on the tax bill for the median home in Scarborough, valued at $300,000.
But despite Perry’s shot across the bow, school leaders say trying to pare back the increase will cause problems in a district where, according to middle school Principal Barbara Hathorn, “The data shows performance on assessments decreasing over time.”
“There’s nothing that is frivolous about this budget,” said Entwistle. “Every need that has been identified is critically important to stabilize and stop the deterioration that we see happening here.”
“Over the last two years, we have gone to really bare bones,” agreed Assistant Superintendent JoAnne Sizemore, referencing 42 positions cut since 2010. “We are at the point in our school system where we are not serving our kids the way we should be.”
“I’d rather spend that money on kids now than see them 10 years from now in the Cumberland County Jail,” said school board member John Cole.
“It’s like ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ which we saw our students perform last night,” said school board member Kelly Murphy. “The curtain has been pulled back and the gig is up. People in this town are panicking about the lack of improvement and forward movement. I understand it’s a big tax increase, but there hasn’t been one in several years.”
A debt refinancing deal co-engineered by Town Manager Tom Hall and school board Chairman Robert Mitchell is now calculated to save $793,100, although an exact figure will not be known until a mid-month bond sale. Still, overall education spending is up 7.2 percent, including $1.15 million in salaries, wages and benefits, which now account for 73.2 percent of the operating budget.
At 7.2 percent, this year’s spending hike is the most since the start of the recession, when the budget for the 2009 fiscal year, adopted in May 2008, was up 4.9 percent. Since then, annual budget hikes of 0.2 percent (FY 2010) and 1.6 percent (FY 2012) sandwiched an actual 0.3 percent spending cut in FY 2011.
“I hate to be the guy who is coming in and saying the under-funding here has caught up with you, and I’m sorry it’s happened at a time when people are so concerned about spending,” said Entwistle.
The total 12.9 percent hit to local tax bills would not be so bad, he said, of not for the loss of $1.14 million if federal stimulus funds used to plug holes in this year’s budget. Meanwhile, although neighboring South Portland saw a $980,000 spike in its state subsidy thanks to declining home values, General Purpose Aid for education in Scarborough rose a comparatively paltry $15,849.
But Entwistle and his crew need not have preached to Perry. A retired physical education teacher in the Portland school system who’s logged more than a quarter century as a Scarborough school director, she has long had a reputation for being among the loudest voices in the choir for public education.
Following Saturday’s workshop, Perry said she actually supports “every single line” in the proposed budget.
“It’s only the bottom line I can’t support,” she said, explaining that her reservation is based almost entirely on an expectation that the Town Council will take an ax to it.
“I’m in a serious quandary here,” said Perry. “This is, without doubt, the budget we need, but it is not the budget I can support.”
Among Entwistle’s “responsible adjustments” to the budget include adding $104,500 to buy a second school bus, $650,000 to upgrade eight-year-old student computers ($100,000 will come from surpluses this year, while $400,000 will be part of the capital improvement budget that goes before the school board Thursday) and $50,000 to acknowledge that the self-sustaining school lunch program has never finished in the black.
Entwistle also is asking for $598,600 for new programming, primarily to restore foreign language classes cut at the elementary school level last year.
“What we clearly heard at our community dialogue is not just that we want that back, but that we want a strong program,” said Curriculum Director Monique Culbertson, referencing an Oct. 12 meeting attended by nearly 400 community members.
Another change spinning out of that event is an overhaul to professional development. Gone are the days of teacher workshops and in are “self-selected professional learning teams” that will pursue ongoing “meaningful, job-embedded learning.”
“The idea of teachers going to conferences and bringing back information can be very valuable,” said Kelly Mullen-Martin, principal at Pleasant Hill Elementary School. “But giving teachers time built into their daily schedules to implement strategies, to talk to their colleagues about what’s working – making adjustments and feeding that directly back into their practice with students – is really the directions we want our teachers to go.”
The change will only cost $7,000 – the fee to Cambridge College for Entwistle to teach a graduate-level leadership class to group facilitators. However, parents will see a bigger change as the seven, two-hour early release days in this year’s schedule turn next year into 12 one-hour, 45-minute late-start days.
Other new line items in the budget proposal include:
• $120,000 at the high school for tech support, and to develop new class offerings in areas of “high student demand” including the arts, alternative education and advanced placement.
• $117,000 at the middle school to replace a retiring “integrated life sciences teacher” with one trained in hand-on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs; and to hire a half-time physical education teacher, a half-time writing specialist and a 4/5-time foreign language teacher.
• $100,000 at Wentworth Intermediate School to hire a level III education technician specializing in technology and a foreign language teacher.
• $78,000 in the primary schools to hire a 3/5-time guidance counselor and a 3/5-time “technology integrator.”
• $70,000 to restore to ed-tech jobs in special education. Funds also will be reallocated to move a special education teacher from the primary schools to the high school and to hire a half-time autism specialist, a particular need, according to Special Services Director Alison Marchese, who said Scarborough now has 57 students identified with autism.
To combat increased costs, Mitchell suggested raising fees, including the price to participate in extracurricular activities (now $100 per student, capped at $300 per family) or assessing a $100-per-quarter fee for students to park at the high school.
“We have the ability to raise money without ever going to the voters, or the [town] council,” he reminded his peers.
Still, the school board is slated for a joint workshop session with the council at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 11, and Mitchell predicts some tough sledding before the final council vote on May 2, and the public validation vote May 15.
In the meantime, despite Perry’s uncharacteristic attempt to break ranks, the remaining school leadership appears poised to circle the wagons.
“The important thing is to show the public, to actually get out there, to talk to parents, to talk to people wherever we go, to say that this is not just a wish list, that it’s all needed, because there are a lot of people out there who do not have children who won’t want this [budget] approved,” said school board member Amy Hardesty.
“Speaking as someone who’s been at two places where they’ve been at this same critical moment, I think all eyes are on the school board,” said Dean Auriemma, high school principal. “Right now, because of recent cuts, what is needed has turned into a want, and that is a very precarious position.”