SCARBOROUGH – Having carved $2.34 million for the original $41.38 million budget proposal made by Superintendent George Entwistle on March 31, the Scarborough Board of Education was visibly terse May 2 when it met to vote on the final $623,500 in cuts ordered by the Town Council.
A majority of the board said they would nonetheless support the $40.42 million budget, which features a 4.01 percent increase from current spending and will go before voters at the polls on Tuesday, May 14.
However, a number of school board members, including John Cole, Jackie Perry and Chairwoman Christine Massengill, are urging voters to check the box on their ballots indicating that budget is “too low” for their liking.
That, they say, will help to set the stage for next year’s budget battle.
“We really are looking for some kind of trending to be able to go forward collectively as a town,” said Chris Caiazzo, chairman of the school board finance committee.
“It’s simple, pass the budget, but say it’s too low,” said Cole. “This year was difficult. It was disappointing. Whatever name you want to give it, but it is what it is. I think we need to revisit the process and be more proactive [next year].”
“How long are we going to be able to maintain when we continually have a bare-bones budget?” asked Perry. “I think it’s a disservice to our students. This year it’s primarily because of state reductions, but we need to garner more support in town, as well.
“We have wonderful schools. We need to have the best schools,” said Perry.
“Our kids needs more. They deserve more,” agreed school board member Donna Beeley. “It’s up to the parents to get involved by stepping forward and telling out local legislators, and telling our local officials what it is they want.
“You can do that by making sure you get out and vote on the 14th,” said Beeley.
In terms of bending the Town Council’s collective ear, Caiazzo said he hoped a “too low” vote would register. However, so far, Caiazzo said, he has been “a little disappointed at the parent turnout.”
Only about a dozen people spoke in favor of the school budget at an April 11 public hearing. Fewer than half of that spoke up at the May 1 final reading.
Immediately following that meeting, council Chairman Ron Ahlquist acknowledged getting “about 50” calls and emails supporting the school budget, but said he was surprised by the flip-flop this year in traditional turnout at public budget hearings.
“This is the first time I can remember when people upset over their tax bills, particularly senior citizens, have outnumbered the parents,” he said.
“Who can say if that will hold when people go to vote, but however it goes, what we want is for as many people to vote as possibly can,” said Ahlquist.
One common theme at this year’s budget hearings has been residents asking why they get to vote on the school budget, but not the municipal budget. That has left councilors, usually Judy Roy, to explain Scarborough’s form of government, which rests all legislative authority, including the budget and ordinance approve, in the seven-member council, rather than residents in town meeting. However, since 2008, the state has mandated that the public gets to validate all school budgets.
Unlike the seven-member school board, voters don’t get to decide on line items. However, unlike the council, they also don’t have any power to set the bottom line. They only get to say yes or no to the full operating budget. If the decision is no, then it falls to the council to come up with a new number. Because of resulting confusion in some towns were school budgets have been voted down, many towns, like Scarborough, have begun to add the too high/too low referendum question.
That, says Caiazzo, can be a powerful tool, given that the council will likely not want the budget to fail at the polls a second time.
“There’s 18,000 people in this town,” he said. “If you let 14 people decide the fate of this town, that’s going to be the biggest tragedy of all.”