On July 22, the Scarborough Town Council finalized the amount of the school budget to be voted on Aug. 4. The amount of taxpayer funding of the schools is $38.0 million, representing a 5.1 percent increase over the prior year. When combined with the slight reduction in funding for municipal operations in the coming year, the result will be an overall tax rate increase of 2.9 percent.

The 5.1 percent increase in taxpayer funding of the schools fits the pattern of recent years. In the past five years it has increased by 28.8 percent, during a period in which inflation has been slight to nonexistent.

The persistent increases in school tax needs are a cause for great concern among many Scarborough residents. Most of them – whether retirees, families with kids or others – have not seen their incomes increase at anywhere near 28.8 percent during the same period. And the Social Security Administration has just announced that it is very likely that there will be no cost of living adjustment for 2016, putting those on Social Security further behind the property tax 8-ball. The financial impact of rising property taxes is all too real.

Distressingly, there have been no commitments to improving next year’s school budget process and outcome. Nor have there been any indications from Superintendent Entwistle or the School Board that they will consider the financial impact future school expense increases will have on all Scarborough taxpayers. Often their refrain has been closer to “we can’t afford not to increase the school budget,” rather than “yes, we realize the financial constraints of many Scarborough’s taxpayers.”

It is already reasonable to predict that next year’s school budget will be as financially challenging – and politically divisive – as this year’s. Next year’s so-called level services school budget will include the expense impact of the high school laptop program introduced this year. It will also include the impact of newly approved union contracts with some school employees. And fewer resources will be available to cushion these expense increases. For example, the $250,000 left over from the Wentworth project will be applied to expenses in the 2016 budget and will not be available again in 2017. Factors like these suggest a replay of this year’s highly contentious budget process is very likely.

There is one easily accomplished change to the school budget process that will vastly improve its transparency and accountability in coming years – broadcast and make video recordings of the School Board finance committee’s meetings available to the larger public on the town website, just like other meetings of the School Board, the Town Council and its committees.

Why is this important? After the Town Council sets the bottom line for the school budget (as required by state law), it is the finance committee of the School Board that recommends adjustments to the details of the underlying school budget. It was that committee that produced, at the superintendent’s suggestion, the infamous and inflammatory proposed reductions to school activities and sports. The public should have witnessed this important process.

Yet the School Board finance committee operates with minimal public scrutiny. True, their meetings are open to the public. But they are held in a cozy conference room next to the superintendent’s office, sometimes as early as 8 a.m. in the morning. And there are no minutes kept of the meetings, so the public record of the meetings is essentially nonexistent. This is not the recipe for robust public access to the workings of a critical committee of elected school officials.

The suggestion to broadcast and video record the meetings is a simple and hopefully non-controversial one. But it is an important one that will allow all residents to observe a critical portion of the budget process firsthand and make their own judgments on its efficacy and prudence.

In addition, there is one action each of us can and should take. Whether or not you support the 5 percent increase in taxpayer funding of the school budget, be sure to vote on Aug. 4. The school budget referendum is one of the rare opportunities we have to directly impact our tax bill. Given the likelihood of future increases in school funding, voting in every school budget referendum is a very good habit to get into.

Steve Hanly is a Scarborough resident. Visit his blog or contact him at www.LookOutScarborough.com.

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