The City Council’s Finance Committee opened debate on the school budget at a meeting Monday night – the most heavily attended this year.

The meeting room was full to capacity as School Superintendent Stan Sawyer presented the $26.6 million school budget to the committee. The meeting lasted until close to 11 p.m. and ended with the committee deciding to continue its discussion of the school budget at a later meeting.

Sawyer said while the school budget was not flat-funded, the budget adopted by the School Committee last week was asking for $875,000 or 5.7 percent less from the taxpayers than last year’s budget. “That is a reduction on the school side,” Sawyer said.

If the city and school budgets are passed as they are currently formulated, Council President Jim Violette said the city would realize a tax decrease, just not as large as the $1.18 decrease proposed by Mayor Bruce Chuluda. Violette said as the budgets stand, there would be a tax decrease of about 40 cents.

“If we pass everything as it stands today, your taxes go down,” Violette said.

Unlike the meetings of the School Finance Committee where most of the public comment was in favor of Sawyer’s budget and against Chuluda’s directive for a flat-funded budget with all additional state money going to tax relief, several residents spoke out against the school budget.

Connie Smith of Summit Circle said she especially disagreed with the proposal to spend $133,000 to begin an all-day kindergarten program in the city. “All day kindergarten sounds like free babysitting to me,” she said.

Smith said she wanted the city’s senior citizens to be taken into account in the budget process. “I haven’t heard anyone say anything about helping senior citizens, either, it’s all for the kids,” Smith said. “I’ve supported school systems for almost 45 years, and I think its time senior citizens were given some consideration on their taxes.”

Dianne Leconte, who works at the Walker Memorial Library, said all city departments were forced to hold the line on their budgets this year, and she believed the schools should be held to the same standard. “I don’t believe they should have any increase on their budget,” Leconte said. “I think any money that we get back from the state should be given back to the taxpayers in Westbrook.”

Al Juniewicz of Running Brook Road said he was in favor of the school budget and urged the committee to pass the school budget as presented to them. “We have a commitment to the children in this community,” he said. “They deserve a decent education. There have been a tremendous number of cuts made, some of them painful. This is not a frivolous budget at all.”

Leland Arris, president of the Westbrook Education Association, said he believed the entire $2.1 million should be spent for education. “This money is being sent to Westbrook for one specific purpose, to relieve the burden of increasing the tax rate to provide for the city’s educational needs,” said Arris. “It is our belief that the entire $2.1 million should go to education, that’s what it was intended for.”

Arris called Chuluda’s proposal to flat-fund budgets a “meat cleaver” approach to establishing a budget. “This approach is not worthy of a great city like Westbrook,” he said.

Tim Crellin, a member of the School Committee who voted against the proposed budget, said he believed there was more room for cuts in the school budget. “We must recognize that we are morally obligated to make efficient use of our taxpayers’ funds,” he said.

Crellin, who is a member of the School Committee’s Finance Committee, said he believed there was more work that could be done on the school budget to save money for the taxpayers. “I think there are cuts that you can make and that you have to make,” said Crellin.

Later in the meeting, Sawyer responded to Crellin’s statements by saying he believed the school budget was as lean as it could possibly be. “All options were explored,” he said. “If one School Committee member out of seven disagrees with cuts that that person may have suggested, that doesn’t mean that the options weren’t explored. Because all options were explored.”

Violette said he understood both sides of the debate over the budget. He said the committee is trying to balance the need for tax relief with the needs of the schools and the city. “If we want taxes to go down a lot, then we will be hurting the schools and the municipal side,” he said.

The committee had another meeting scheduled for Tuesday night, May 24, after the American Journal’s press time, and it was possible that some action regarding the schools might be taken at that meeting, but on Monday night, councilors could not be sure if there would be time at that meeting to continue the debate over the school budget. The Finance Committee has another meeting scheduled for next Tuesday, May 31, at 7 p.m. in room 114 of Westbrook High School where it is expected to wrap up its budget work.

The committee did make some changes to the city budget last week. The committee unamiously voted to restore about $30,000 to the city’s social services budget.

City Administrator Jerre Bryant said the committee decided to restore the money that the city gives to various social service agencies that provide services in the city to current levels. In his proposed budget, Chuluda had proposed cutting the city’s aid to the social services by 25 percent across the board.

This is the second year in a row that the City Council has restored funding to social service agencies. Last year, Chuluda proposed cutting the city’s contribution in half and the council voted against those cuts.

Bryant said despite adding $30,000 to the budget, the committee has made cuts in other areas with the net result being a modest cut in the proposed budget.

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