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School Board agrees to restore some priorities to 2017-18 budget proposal

The School Board is expected to adopt a $25 million school budget for 2017-18, up 2.9 percent over this year's budget and $318,678 more than the spending plan presented by Interim Superintendent Howard Colter in February.

The proposed budget will mean a tax rate of $13.02 for school services, up 5 percent, or 62 cents over this year's rate.

The board is tentatively set to adopt the budget at its meeting April 11, 2017.

During deliberations in March, board members decided that the 1.6 percent spending increase Colter proposed on Feb. 28 was too lean to keep up with the costs of meeting student needs. "I think it's very explainable to our community how we can't lose $1.6 million in general-purpose aid and not ask them for more support," board member Barbara Powers said at a workshop March 28.

Cape Elizabeth is expecting a nearly $800,000 drop in state general-purpose aid to education next year, matching the $790,000 reduction Cape schools experienced this year.

Colter's original proposal, which would have increased school taxes 3.6 percent, was in response to the reduction, which officials had learned about while school was closed for February vacation. "I made a lot of decisions that aren't necessarily my best thinking, but they were the best I could come up with at the time," Colter said as he presented the initial budget on Feb. 28. "Without the advantage of having all the experience and the intelligence of the administrative team to kind of weigh this out together, I just made some decisions to get the numbers down," Colter said.

Board members subsequently asked administrators to prioritize omitted items that would bring the increase to 2.6 percent - an additional percent over Colter's proposal. They did, but with an unforseen $79,711 additional contribution to state retirement that will be expected of the schools, the restorations will bring the budget increase to 2.9 percent.

Board members said they believed the increase is in line those of the past five years, which, with the exception of 2015-16 when it was 1.3 percent, have been between 3.2 and 3.5 percent. Tax-rate increases over the last five years have ranged from -2.1 percent in 2015-16 to 4.2 percent in 2014-15.

During that time, school enrollment has declined from 1,675 students in 2013-14 to a projected 1,571 in 2017-18, a decrease of 104 students, or 6.2 percent. Even with that decrease, board member John Voltz said budgets need to increase to keep pace with salaries and increasingly diverse needs of students. "There's a greater specialization which makes it more difficult to have a one-to-one shift as your student population decreases," Voltz said. Technology has also changed education in the last 10 years, bringing with it costs for knowledgable staff and equipment.

"And I don't believe the people who elected us, the School Board, want us to reduce the quality of our education in response to that action from Augusta," Voltz continued. "I think they want to say, 'We want to stay where we're at and support a budget that supports the education that we believe in,' " he said.

Joanna Morrissey, another board member and chair of the finance committee, agreed that student needs and the learning environment are more complex than ever. "It's no longer 'let's just open your text book and read Chapter 3,'" she said. "In order to meet the global needs from our students to graduate them and be ready for the world which they face, our classrooms have to reflect that reality," she said.

Restored items

At their latest workshop April 4, board members agreed to budget the retirement contribution and to restore approximately $240,000 worth of items which had been recommended, but left out of Colter's proposal. Chief among them was $46,000 to increase a part-time teaching position at the High School to full-time at the Middle School to accommodate a population bump in the eight grade.

Several items listed as "Priority 2" were also restored, including three educational technicians at the elementary school ($119,050); an interventionist teacher ($78,103); and, a half-time social worker ($32,930).

A half-time gifted-and-talented teacher for the elementary school ($35,814) is also among restorations. "I'm going to remind you the state's feeling is we should have two gifted-and-talented teachers," Colter told the board. "So this is getting us up to one, which is still a big jump forward because in our current budget, it's at a .25 position," he said.

A complete list of changes to the budget proposal, including some reductions, is available here.

Next steps

The Town Council on April 10 will take public comment on any aspect of the 2017-18 municipal budget, which includes school, town and county spending.

After adoption April 11, the School Board will present their budget to the Town Council Finance Committee on April 25. The council will hold a public hearing on the overall municipal budget May 8, with adoption on May 15. All meetings will be held at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.

Voters will be asked to validate the school portion of the budget on June 13.

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