WESTBROOK – After months of bad news from the federal and state government regarding revenues for the Westbrook school district, and weeks of feverish negotiations over deep budget cuts, the 2011-2012 school budget will face the final hurdle of a referendum vote on June 7.

The vote will be a make-or-break moment for the budget, and Interim School Superintendent Marc Gousse knows it. After taking the reins in March, he took on the task of deciding what – and who – to cut from the budget.

Now, Gousse is trying to get the word out to the public in advance of the June 7 vote, and is asking for support.

“Education is an investment,” he said. “The generous support we get from taxpayers will pay dividends down the road.”

Gousse has launched what resembles a last-minute campaign in the final weeks before the vote. On Monday, he held a question-and-answer session at the high school auditorium, Next, he plans to go door-to-door to promote the proposed budget.

It could be a hard sell for him. The proposed budget is a 2.1 percent increase over this year’s budget, which comes on the heels of a confirmed 26-cent tax increase after the City Council recently approved the $24.2 million municipal spending plan. That means the owner of a $190,000 home will pay $49.01 more in taxes next year due to the municipal budget alone.

A yes vote on June 7 means taxpayers would have to shoulder an additional 37-cent increase to the rate, or $70.97 more annually on that same $190,000 home. School Committee Chairman Ed Symbol predicted if the budget does pass, it would be by a slim margin.

“There are people who think we cut too much, there are people who think we didn’t cut enough, and there are people in the middle who haven’t made up their minds,” he said.

Early on Wednesday morning, many visitors to River’s Edge Deli on Main Street discussed the budget over coffee. Many of them say they will vote against it, which they see as a vote of no confidence in an educational system that is broken and needs revamping from the top down, not just in Westbrook, but throughout Maine and nationwide.

“We need to do business differently than we do it (now),” said Phil Charest, one of the loudest voices on the subject Wednesday morning.

But like everyone else in the room, Charest was quick to add that pointing fingers at Gousse or the school committee isn’t fair, and won’t fix anything.

“It’s not the school committee’s fault. They’re doing the best job they can,” he said.

Charest and other voters are frustrated with what appears to be a broken system. Budgets that appear to grow faster than enrollments, they said, don’t make sense.

John Hebert, who joined the conversation, took a common-sense approach: The community should get what it pays for. If test scores at the schools don’t go up, he said, neither should the budgets.

“If you don’t want to talk about cutting, that’s fine with me, but you better be talking about higher test scores,” he said.

Only about 20 people attended Gousse’s Monday session, including some district administrators, but Gousse pressed on anyway, with a presentation of the current state of the budget and how he and the school committee arrived at this point.

Gousse said the initial expenditures as presented for 2012 were actually a bit lower than this year’s budget already, but that’s only half the story. The state and federal governments, which Westbrook and most other school districts rely on for additional revenues, came up short, to the tune of about $3.7 million. That meant cuts, Gousse said. Lots of them, which included cutting positions. At the same time, Gousse and the committee scrambled to find new sources of revenue to offset the colossal gap that, if not addressed, would have been filled by taxpayers.

From week to week, as committee members argued over what should stay and what could go, the size of the gap and its potential impact on the taxpayer changed. According to Gousse on Monday, the June 7 referendum is asking, through a series of warrant articles, for the public to vote on a $30.7 million budget. While that’s about $2.5 million less than the 2010-2011 budget, the massive loss of revenue means there is still a $690,924 net increase that taxpayers will have to take on if the referendum passes; hence, the 37-cent tax increase.

That comes, Gousse said Monday, at the end of a six-year period that saw very little increase to the taxpayer at all, which in hindsight might have been only a staving off of the inevitable increase that the city faces now.

“You get into scenarios where you get a ‘bump,’” he said. “The cliff that we keep hearing about is here.”

Gousse stressed also, however, that it’s not just about asking a lot of taxpayers. Initially, the district was planning to cut 53 positions, and even after impassioned pleas from parents, the budget still calls for the elimination of 42 positions. Gousse said those positions are throughout the district, including 21 teachers, 10.5 support staff positions, 8.5 stipended positions and two administration jobs.

Part of what prevented that number of employees from being laid off, he said, was a total of 19 retirements, together with some reassignment of teachers and support staff to more essential positions.

In total, Gousse said, if the budget passes, six teachers will be put out of work, along with seven support staffers. If it does not pass, Gousse said, “there’s nothing left” to cut except more positions.

Symbol said he agrees with that assessment.

“I don’t know where else you cut,” he said. “If (the budget) gets turned down, it’s going to get a little messier.”

Gousse said the 2011-2012 school year, even if the budget passes, will be a tough year, where the district will surely be facing more cuts once again. Gousse said he has received feedback from the public with many suggestions for new money-saving ideas. None of those ideas, he said, are going unnoticed.

“We’re going to stretch it as far as we can,” Gousse said. “We will not be doing business as usual.”

A change from business as usual would be music to the ears for people like Charest, who want to see the district provide the best education possible, but in a way that makes financial sense.

“All of us are pro-education,” he said. “We’re not scared of paying for it.”


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