Scarborough’s superintendent of schools will be asking the Board of Education Thursday to approve a budget that is 3.5 percent higher than last year’s.

The current school budget is $35 million. Superintendent David Doyle’s proposal would bring the total to $36.3 million.

The increases include adding a half-time social worker, reinstating an educational technician at the Pleasant Hill School Library, supporting and expanding an English as a second language, or ESL, program, and continuing work on a new math curriculum that will be introduced at the middle school.

It might be a tough sell.

“That budget is too high in this economy,” said education board member Annalee Rosenblatt, who also sits on the board’s finance committee. “It needs to be reviewed more carefully.”

Thursday’s meeting begins at 7 p.m. and is open to the public. School board member John Cole says the meeting will produce a budget number to submit to the town.

“We need to work on a budget that falls in line more with taxpayers’ needs,” Cole said. “Right now, we don’t know what that is, but we want to hear from taxpayers to work through this process.”

Doyle said 3.5 percent is only a target number, but he understands that number won’t be agreed upon.

“I would like it to be that,” he said. “I am also realistic enough to know there will be adjustments.”

Late last year, Scarborough schools lost $781,000 in state aid from its current budget after the state slashed its General Purpose Aid fund nearly $27 million to deal with an upcoming budget deficit of its own.

Scarborough deflected the blow of the GPA loss somewhat because some higher-paid teachers retired last year, leaving wiggle room in the fixed-costs budget for salaries and fringe benefits, Doyle said.

The school system has frozen all spending deemed unnecessary, such as field trips or buying nonessential materials, to free up money for the next budget cycle, Doyle said.

Doyle is currently in contract negotiations with the schools unions that include teachers, custodians, administrators, health staff and bus drivers, he said.

Those employees’ contracts are up and he said he hopes some concessions will be made, but he couldn’t go into detail as the contract negotiations are in executive sessions.

At the Feb. 5 school board meeting, Cole said 3.5 percent is too high and recommended a maximum increase of 3 percent.

“That’s just a number,” he said. “It could be 2 percent, 1 percent or 0 percent, but 3 percent is pretty typical to what we’ve done in the past. This year, however, is different, as every town is struggling with the economy.”

The state should know by next week what amounts schools will be receiving in General Purpose Aid for the 2009-2010 school year. Until then, however, Scarborough is trying to create a budget based on numerous unknowns, Rosenblatt said.

“How would you make a home budget if you don’t know what your income is?” she said. “We don’t know what our revenue from the state is.”

Also unknown is how schools and towns might benefit from the $787 billion stimulus package that President Barack Obama signed earlier this month.

“We don’t know if some of that money is going to go to the schools based on need, or how it’s really going to work,” Rosenblatt said.

Maine Education Commissioner Sue Gendron went to Washington on Wednesday to learn about how Maine school districts will receive the stimulus money, Doyle said.

Gendron on Monday is scheduled to have a telephone conference with the state’s superintendents to discuss how the stimulus money will work for the state, Doyle said.

After Thursday’s school board meeting, the budget will go to the Town Council Finance Committee and then to the full council. Another public hearing will be held in April or May.

The Town Council hopes to send the school budget to referendum by May 12, Town Manager Tom Hall said.

Hall said he isn’t telling the school department how to handle its budget, but he thinks the 3.5 percent is too high.

The town is bracing for anticipated revenue losses, and spending cuts look “inevitable,” he said.

“I really have not studied their budget, nor their proposal,” Hall said. “It seems to me. in times like these. it’s questionable to me to have a sizable budget increase. If now’s not the time to tighten our belts, when is?”


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