Scarborough Town Council and School Board leaders recently decided to cancel the long-scheduled May 11 joint workshop on the Fiscal 2017 budget. The reason: “There are no pressing topics left to discuss.”

Apparently the following items do not rise to the level of pressing topics:

1. School operating expenses will increase by $2.3 million, or 5.3 percent, in the fiscal 2017 budget.

2. At the same time, Scarborough’s state education aid has decreased by $1.1 million and is expected to decline significantly further in the near-term future.

3. Total taxpayer funding of the schools will increase by 5.5 percent – to $39.7 million – in fiscal 2017.

4. School enrollment dropped from 3,225 at the beginning of fiscal 2013 to 2,989 at the beginning of fiscal 2016, a decline of 236 students or 7.3 percent.

5. During that same four-year period of declining enrollment, school operating expenses increased by $6.3 million or 16.8 percent. Inflation was low to non-existent during that period.

6. Also during that period, Scarborough High School’s U.S. News & World Report ranking dropped from seventh to fourteenth among Maine high schools.

7. At the recent budget forum, town leaders noted that we are facing a “fiscal cliff” in the near future. That is to say, financial challenges that will require major tax increases.

8. The town manager has been unwilling to provide a projection of future tax rates since it would be a “speculative” exercise. (Aren’t all projections, by definition, speculative?)

9. During the budget development process the School Board Finance Committee gave the budget what can only be described as a cursory public review.

We believe that a significant number of town residents find these topics to be not only pressing, but critically important. To pretend that the Fiscal 2017 school budget is so finely-tuned and non-controversial that it doesn’t warrant further discussion is disingenuous at best.

The proposed total municipal/school budget results in an apparently modest overall tax increase of 3.3 percent. But that seemingly modest increase is largely the result of a happy mistake the town made by borrowing too much money to fund the Wentworth School project. Without the one-time, artificial impact of the fortuitous over-borrowing, we would be facing a 6 percent total tax increase in fiscal 2017.

And while the town manager is not willing to make tax increase projections for fiscal 2018 and beyond, I am. Based on the state’s current funding mechanism and reasonable assumptions about expense growth and the use of reserves, it appears that the taxpayer funding of the schools for fiscal 2018 would increase by about 8 percent. I have shared that projection with the town manager and Town Council Finance Committee; no one has disagreed with my assumptions.

The desire of town and school leaders to have the school budget sail through the approval process with nary a discouraging word is understandable in light of our recent history of contentious budgets. But that approval should not come by deceiving voters as to the real impact of this budget on future tax rates.

There is indeed a fiscal cliff ahead for the schools as expenses continue to rise and state aid revenues continue to fall. The cliff should be addressed in the current budget; a 5.3 percent increase in expenses in the face of continuing significant declines in state aid is not the way to minimize the fiscal cliff. In fact, it increases the height of the cliff that we will soon be pushed off. The proposed budget should be significantly reduced in order to avoid major tax increases in the future.

At their May 18 meeting, the Town Council will almost certainly give final approval to the proposed budget, confirming their opinion that it is free of “pressing topics.” But on June 14, Scarborough residents will have their own chance to vote on the school budget. If you agree that the budget does indeed contain some pressing topics and does not responsibly address underlying school expense issues, you may express your opinion by voting no on the school budget on June 14.

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


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