Westbrook school officials disclosed Monday that a study is under way looking at eliminating two of the city’s elementary schools and moving the fifth grade into the new middle school.

School officials cautioned that the study was preliminary and said it would be premature to release details about a plan, but said they felt they needed to look at the option, particular in light of budget pressures the schools have been under recently.

The disclosure came at a joint meeting between members of the City Council and School Committee, who were sitting down together for the first time this year to discuss budgets that are expected to be especially challenging because of falling revenues and pressure to keep taxes down.

The discussion Monday offered a glimpse into just how challenging the budget process could be this year, as a question about how soon the city could complete its budget turned into a tense exchange between School Committee members and Mayor Bruce Chuluda.

Though both Sawyer and Bryant have yet to come up with specific plans for reducing spending, they said the decrease in money coming in will make their jobs over the next several months difficult.

“With a level-funded budget, we still have some pretty significant challenges,” Bryant said.

Bryant said he’s anticipating a decrease of nearly $1 million in revenue from last year, the bulk of which will come from drops in excise taxes and construction permit fees.

The school is dealing with decreased funding from the state. Last fall Gov. John Baldacci issued a $27 million curtailment order, which forced Westbrook schools to eliminate $414,000 out of this year’s budget.

Sawyer said he expected the state to fund about $12 million in next year’s budget, which was what it paid this year in total, after the curtailment. This will be the final budget for Sawyer, who is retiring in June.

Sawyer said Harriman Associates is currently working on a study of the potential savings in consolidating the schools. According to Mike Kucsma, business manager for the school department, that study, which is being done at no cost, should be complete within a couple of months.

As for the politics of eliminating elementary schools, Sawyer said, the new superintendent, Reza Namin, who was hired early Tuesday evening, “is going to have to deal with that.”

Initially, the new middle school was supposed to hold the sixth, seventh and eighth grades, with room left to support 200 more students. However, Sawyer said, enrollment numbers are dropping in the elementary schools, which led him to look at the option of consolidating within the district.

The four elementary schools in the district are Canal School on Glenwood Avenue, Congin School on Bridge Street, Prides Corner School on Pride Street and Saccarappa School on Huntress Avenue.

According to Sawyer, a consolidation of elementary schools would be something that “would rise right to the top of the list for state funding,” because it saves money on building operations.

In order to save money in next year’s budget, Sawyer said he expects to share some specialists among the elementary schools and the middle schools, which would eliminate some positions. He also said a position would be eliminated at the Westbrook Regional Vocational Center, where some classes have been under-subscribed.

Sawyer’s total projected budget came in at $33.6 million – nearly $3 million more than last year.

One major increase in the new budget is the first debt service payment on the local share of the new middle school, which will be about $740,000. Also, payroll increases alone make for a $940,000 increase in expenditures, Sawyer said.

On the city side, Bryant said he’s currently at the bargaining table with all five of the city employee labor unions, which are in the first year of three-year contracts.

“All five said, ‘We’re willing to sit down and talk to you,'” Bryant said about their response to his presenting the revenue shortfalls the city is facing.

In January, decreases in revenue, mainly excise taxes and building permits, forced the city to lay off nine employees and cut services in order to make up for a $580,000 shortfall. Having to deal with that, Bryant said, delayed the start of the budgeting process for next year.

School Committee members, however, expressed dissatisfaction with the efficiency of the city’s budgeting process at the workshop Tuesday, and a debate ensued among the committee members, councilors and Mayor Bruce Chuluda.

Because of the state requirement that residents vote on the school budget, Sawyer said, there was a possibility that, if the budget were rejected, he would have to cut more positions the second time around. Because teachers and administrators at the schools are required to have a 90-day notice before their positions are eliminated, Sawyer indicated he’d like to hold a referendum in May rather than in June.

The suggestion sparked a heated exchange between School Committee members and Chuluda, who quickly retorted that the charter wouldn’t allow him to present a budget to the council before the school’s portion was complete.

Furthermore, Bryant said the administration wouldn’t be finished working on the city budget until the middle of April – the same time the School Committee is expected to finish its review.

School Committee member Sue Bearor questioned why the administration couldn’t work faster to get the municipal budget to the City Council to start a review. That’s when Bryant explained that the process started later than usual because the city was dealing with this year’s budget shortfall.

Council President Brendan Rielly said it would be hard to expedite the council’s review, as well, because it will receive the budget just before a school vacation, when many councilors leave town.

Councilor Mike Foley, who is the chairman of the finance committee, said he thought a budget could be voted on by the beginning of April.

Rielly said, however, “without even seeing a budget, I’m not voting on a budget before April vacation,” emphasizing the fact that the process shouldn’t be rushed through.

Though the officials never came to an agreement on how to proceed with a budget timeline, School Committee Chairman Greg Smith stepped in, calling an end to the debate.

“This doesn’t need to be a 14-person exercise,” Smith said about how the administrators would work together on a solution, if there is one.

“If we make it, we make it; if we don’t, we don’t,” he said about the May referendum. “The world isn’t going to come to an end.”


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