Thursday, December 5, 2013
By Leslie Bridgers firstname.lastname@example.org
WESTBROOK — The superintendent of Westbrook schools, saying the district is no longer in a financial crisis, has proposed a $33.3 million budget that focuses on students' achievement and would raise taxes for education by 8 percent.
The proposed budget for 2013-14 is $2.4 million more than the current budget. It calls for six more full-time positions, security upgrades, new laptops and a summer literacy program for elementary school students.
The proposed tax increase would add $137 to the property tax bill for the average home in Westbrook, worth $190,000.
Superintendent Marc Gousse said half of the proposed increase comes from contracted salary increases, including a 2.5 percent raise for teachers and support staff members and a projected 8 percent increase in health care costs.
Another $440,000 accounts for a shift in retirement contributions from the state to the school department, as proposed by Gov. Paul LePage.
Gousse noted that the proposed budget, which he presented to the School Committee's Finance Committee on Wednesday, is only a starting point.
"The budget is a process, not an event," he said.
School Committee Chairman Jim Violette said he expects "major" adjustments to be made before the budget goes to voters in June. But, he said, "there's no number goal."
The Finance Committee will begin its line-by-line review of the budget proposal Saturday and plans to make a recommendation to the School Committee on April 10.
Gousse said the School Committee has made it clear that his focus should be on improving students' achievement.
"In order for me to produce results, I need to make sure I have the resources to do it," he said.
One proposed expense that Gousse and Violette said they expect to generate intense debate among School Committee members is $450,000 for upgrading laptops, which was put off last year.
Violette said no data has shown that the computers have improved students' performance.
"If they can't justify that expense, the School Committee is ready to say, 'No laptops,' " he said.
Any controversy over technology probably couldn't match the budget discussions that happened at this time last year and the year before, when officials considered cutting dozens of positions to close major budget shortfalls.
"We're not in a crisis anymore," said Gousse.
Now, he is asking to add positions, including two teachers, two education technicians, a math coach and a grant writer.
Gousse is also proposing to add maintenance, transportation and technology coordinators, who would work under Director of Operations Dean Flanagin. He said those three positions would likely replace existing positions in their respective departments.
As proposed, the budget would add 72 cents to Westbrook's tax rate, which is now $17.40 per $1,000 of valuation. City Administrator Jerre Bryant plans to present the municipal budget to the City Council on March 18.
Last year, there was no tax increase because the city used some of its surplus to avoid the need for more tax money to fund the school budget.
The city also used surplus funds to pay off the school department's $760,000 debt, created when the previous administration failed to take into account teachers' salaries throughout the summer.
Gousse said Friday that the school department has recouped that money on its own and he is recommending that the School Committee vote Wednesday to return it to the city.
That, and a recent audit report, mark a new day for the school department, Gousse said. "We have lived within our means."
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: