Scarborough voters are once again divided over the school budget, with leaders of each side accusing the other of distorting details of a $47.4 million spending plan for the coming year that voters firmly rejected Tuesday.

The vote was 2,408 to 1,822 against a budget that would have increased school spending in 2017-18 by $718,000, or 3.4 percent, and would have absorbed an anticipated $1.4 million reduction in state education aid.

It was the fifth time in 10 years that town voters rejected the first draft of the school budget, with 57 percent casting ballots against the proposal. A second referendum will be held this summer, likely in July.

That municipal and school officials used surplus funds to fill a $2.1 million funding gap and keep the projected tax rate increase at 3.49 percent didn’t sit well with Steve Hanly, a leader among budget opponents.

While Hanly says a 3.4 percent budget increase “is not unreasonable,” he says a proposed 7.4 percent increase in property tax funding for schools, from $39.8 million to $42.8 million, was way too high.

“If your revenue is going down, in most organizations, you’d look to trim your expenses as much as you could. I know it’s education, but you still have to have a business-like approach,” said Hanly, who writes a blog about the town budget process and is part of a group that maintains a website and a Facebook page, “Concerned Taxpayers of Scarborough.”

Hanly said town officials were “very selective in how they portrayed the school budget and the overall budget” in ways that diverted attention from the school budget’s growing tax impact and declining enrollment.

Hanly, who has no children, said he didn’t know how much the school budget should be reduced or exactly where cost cutting should be done. He said people who campaigned against the budget are “very pro-education” and believe the Town Council must balance the needs of all taxpayers.

“I can’t put a number to it,” Hanly said Wednesday. “That’s the Town Council’s job.”

‘ONE TOWN, ONE BUDGET’

Town Council Chairman Shawn Babine says balancing the competing needs of taxpayers is exactly what municipal and school officials tried to do with a formalized “One Town, One Budget” approach to developing a 2017-18 spending plan for all town expenses.

Babine said cross-department cooperation was especially important this year given a projected $1.4 million reduction in education aid – a subsidy that has dropped nearly $5 million, or 70 percent, over the last decade, largely because of the town’s thriving commercial tax base.

The all-for-one approach seemed to work last year, when 56 percent of town voters approved a $47.5 million school budget for 2016-17 that was $2.3 million or 5 percent higher than the previous year, including cafeteria services and adult education. The $47.4 million budget figure that voters rejected Tuesday excluded cafeteria and adult ed costs.

In 2015, voters rejected the school budget twice before finally passing a spending plan with 61 percent of the vote. That was the third year in a row that Scarborough had battled over its school budget through multiple referendums.

“This community has been divisive for many years, dealing with the school department as if it’s a separate department, and it’s not,” Babine said. “The numbers (Hanly and others are) choosing to look at are accurate as a subtext of the entire budget. We presented a budget with a modest impact to the overall tax rate, which is what affects families and other taxpayers.”

The proposed $47.4 million school budget was part of an overall $84.4 million operating budget for municipal, school and county services that would have increased overall spending by 4 percent in the fiscal year starting July 1.

Under this combined spending plan, the property tax rate would have increased about 56 cents, or 3.49 percent, from $15.92 to $16.48 per $1,000 in property value. The annual tax bill on a $300,000 home would have increased $168, from $4,776 to $4,944.

SIMILAR ACCUSATIONS

Babine, who has an adult daughter, said it was frustrating that school budget opponents changed their message over the last few months. First, he said, the opposition focused on keeping school spending and the tax rate down.

Then, when the overall budget came through with school spending and tax rate increases close to 3 percent, opponents shifted their focus to the proposed 7.4 percent increase in the amount to be raised in property taxes, Babine said. Their campaign included road signs and robo calls that indicated or implied that the overall school budget would increase 7.4 percent, he said.

“I respect the decision of the voters. I understand that some people can’t afford their taxes going up,” Babine said. “But this is a group that’s asking for transparency and their entire campaign was misleading and untruthful.”

Scarborough’s perennial budget dispute is a rarity in a state where every public school district must hold a budget referendum and most pass by wide margins. Now, the town has 10 days to revise its school budget proposal and schedule a second referendum. The current budget will remain in effect until a new one passes.

Babine said he will hold a phone conference this week with School Board Chairwoman Kelly Murphy and Superintendent Julie Kukenberger get the process underway. The budget outlook might improve slightly by June 21, he said, when the state is expected to issue firmer education subsidy estimates.

“We’re going to get through it and do what needs to be done,” Babine said.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at:

[email protected]