The growing polarization of town voters that has occurred in passing a school budget each year is a central issue for the five candidates running for two seats on the Scarborough Town Council.

Candidates in the Nov. 3 election include James Benedict, a former councilor, and Christopher Caiazzo, a school board member, along with Robert Rowan, William “Liam” Somers and Michael Turek. Two council seats are open because Jessica Holbrook and Edward Blaise aren’t seeking re-election.

Political fault lines that deepened during this year’s budget battle remain apparent, especially on community Facebook pages that staked combative positions last spring and summer. “Supporters of Scarborough Schools” and “Save Scarborough Schools” are promoting Caiazzo and Rowan, and “Concerned Taxpayers of Scarborough” is promoting Somers and Turek.

In the school board races, candidate Kathryn Miles and incumbents Donna Beeley and Jaquelyn Perry are running unchallenged for three seats up for election, including Caiazzo’s spot. In addition, Cari Lyford is running unopposed for a one-year term to fill a vacancy left by the recent resignation of board member Jane Leng. Council and school board terms are normally for three years.

Last spring and summer, for the third year in a row, and the fourth time in eight years, Scarborough voters battled over school spending. On Aug. 3, they went to the polls for a third time and finally approved a $43.5 million school budget. The spending plan for 2015-16 is $250,000 less than the initial $43.8 million proposal that voters rejected on June 9 and $250,000 more than the $43.3 million proposal they rejected on July 7.

The $43.5 million spending plan represents a $1.5 million, or 3.7 percent, increase over the $42 million 2014-15 school budget. The property tax rate for both municipal and school services increased 44 cents, or 2.9 percent, from $15.10 to $15.54 per $1,000 of assessed property value, adding $132 to the annual tax bill on a $300,000 home.

Benedict, 67, believes his experience on the council and goal to promote transparency between Town Hall and taxpayers would help town officials pass a budget that voters could support.

“I’ve got a lot of knowledge from the three years I was on the council,” said Benedict, a retired building contractor. “Scarborough is in trouble because we’re not making the budget a priority. We’ve got to straighten out the budget so it’s more compatible with the taxpayer.”

Caiazzo, 45, said his experience on the school board would help address the polarization between residents who readily support school funding requests and those who believe the town spends too much on its schools.

Caiazzo said he would work to increase communication between the council and school board, bring greater transparency and accountability to the budget process and engage the public sooner so townspeople have a better understanding of school needs.

“Decorum, civility and respect don’t seem to exist anymore,” said Caiazzo, a business development manager. “We need to find a better way to divvy up (town resources). It’s a question of setting priorities and holding the municipal side of things to the same scrutiny and standards as the school side.”

Rowan, 38, is concerned about the dysfunction of the school budget process and the lack of public debate over town spending.

“The school budget vote is the only venue people have to say, ‘My taxes are too high,’ so they lash out,” said Rowan, a computer software consultant. “It’s the only place where they can give direct feedback.”

He wants to increase the amount of budget information available to the public and the amount of feedback available to councilors, possibly by holding forums like the listening sessions the school board has hosted to improve public engagement and the tone of public debate.

Somers, 46, said he found this year’s school budget process especially challenging. He voted against the initial budget proposal in June, he said, because he thought it put some Scarborough residents in financial peril. He has more than 20 years of business experience, which he believes would help the council build a budget that a majority of townspeople could support.

“It’s a problem that has divided our town – it’s literally neighbor against neighbor,” said Somers, a customer care and risk operations director. “We need to do something different, to communicate just the facts without embellishment, to create a process that allows people to hear, weigh and validate both sides.”

Turek, 69, believes streamlining the budget process would help reduce contention between town voters and help stabilize the property tax rate. To do that, he suggests adopting a two-year budget cycle, like the state’s, and moving the start of the town’s fiscal year to Oct. 1. Both would require complicated charter changes.

A semi-retired Lowe’s employee, Turek also recommends capping budget increases at 3 percent per year and decreasing town and school debt so that more could be spent on municipal services and education.

“I would like to see somebody say to the school board, nobody’s getting pay raises out here, don’t expect more than 3 percent,” Turek said.


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