SCARBOROUGH — Town voters finally approved a 2017-18 school budget on the third try Tuesday, bringing an end to an especially long and divisive budget season.

The vote was 2,223 to 1,985, with 53 percent of voters casting ballots for a spending plan that calls for a 2.8 percent increase in the school budget, from $45.8 million to $47.1 million. Twenty-five percent of the town’s 16,816 registered voters turned out at the polls.

Superintendent Julie Kukenberger and several budget supporters cheered when Town Clerk Tody Justice announced that the measure won by 238 votes, following a hand count in the Town Council chamber at the Municipal Building.

“It really is a relief,” Kukenberger said. “This is great news. I’m really proud of our community and our great voter turnout. Now, it’s time to start working on the 2018-19 school budget.”

SMARTaxes (Scarborough Maine Advocates for Reasonable Taxes), a group that opposed the school budget proposal, issued a statement saying that it was disappointed by the outcome of the referendum.

“Voters approved a 6.7 percent increase in taxpayer funding of the schools,” the statement said. “The results continue to underscore the division between those who support continuing growth in the school budget and those who are financially challenged by continuing tax increases.”

HISTORY OF CONTROVERSY

This is the fifth time in 10 years that Scarborough voters failed to approve a school budget on the first ballot. In the same period, the town’s education aid from the state has dropped by nearly $5 million, or 70 percent, from a high of $7 million in 2008-09 to $2.1 million in 2017-18 – largely because of its thriving commercial tax base.

The first school budget proposal was rejected by 57 percent of the voters on June 13, failing 2,408 to 1,822. It was part of a combined $84.5 million operating budget for municipal, school and county services that would have increased overall spending by $2.5 million, or 3 percent.

On July 25, a slim majority of voters rejected a second proposal that cut $236,000 from the school budget and $71,000 from the municipal budget. The measure failed 1,930 to 1,847 – an 83-vote gap. Town councilors unanimously approved an additional $50,000 reduction for the third referendum.

Given the controversy, interest in the budget validation process grew through the spring and summer months. Conflicting campaign signs illustrated the deep divide and differing views that persisted through the latest referendum, each of which cost $2,500 to $3,000.

OUTSIDE REVENUE AT ISSUE

Signs calling for “yes” votes highlighted the 2.8 percent increase in the gross school budget – which includes outside revenue sources in addition to tax revenue – from $45.8 million to $47.1 million. The latter number is the one voters saw in the ballot booth. It covers “essential programs and services” as defined by state law, and it excludes adult education and food services.

Signs pushing for “no” votes pointed out a 6.7 percent increase in the net school budget – which does not include outside revenue sources – from $39.8 million to $42.5 million. Opponents of the school budget proposal focused on spending that would be covered by local taxpayers, and they included additional costs for adult education and food services.

Many who supported the proposal wanted local taxpayers to cover a $1.4 million loss in state education aid and avoid further cuts. Many who opposed the budget wanted the school district to cut spending rather than dip into cash reserves to cover the lost state aid.

With the approved school budget, the tax rate for the fiscal year that started July 1 will be $16.49 per $1,000 in property value. That’s 57 cents or 3.6 percent higher than the $15.92 tax rate in fiscal 2017.

Town officials had hoped that the town’s valuation would support a lower tax rate increase of 46 cents or 2.9 percent. At the higher rate, the annual tax bill on a $300,000 home will increase $171, from $4,776 to $4,947.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at:

[email protected]