CAPE ELIZABETH — Cape Elizabeth town councilors pushed back at the school department at a joint budget workshop meeting Tuesday night, asking for major cuts to the school’s proposed $28.5 million plan.

“We need bold moves. We don’t need the same old, same old,” said Councilor Penelope Jordan.

The school budget is asking for a new education tax rate of $15.12, an increase of 4.13% over the 2020 rate of $14.52. That’s a 60-cent increase, or $150 for the owner of a $250,000 home.

At the April 28 meeting, Town Manager Matthew Stugis presented the municipal budget of $7.2 million, an increase of $204,000, or 2.92%, over the 2020 budget. Sturgis said that’s an estimated 1.98% hike to the tax rate, which amounts to 8 cents, or $20 for the owner of a $250,000 home.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the council made it clear that the school budget’s increase was not acceptable. The council did not suggest an acceptable budget or limit for any increase to the tax rate, but council Chairwoman Valerie Adams said she wanted the rate to go up “marginally, if at all.”

Other councilors agreed, citing the economic difficulties surrounding the impacts of the coronavirus as a concern. Not only is it more difficult than usual to estimate revenues now, they said, but higher unemployment rates mean residents are going to have a tougher time than usual accepting a tax hike.

“The time that’s ahead of us remains tremendously uncertain,” said Councilor James Garvin.

Garvin, who also serves as chairman of the council’s finance committee, said school officials needed to seek “bolder and more creative solutions” than what might be required to trim costs in a particular year.

Recognizing that salaries and benefits make up the lion’s share of the school budget, Garvin suggested approaching the collective bargaining units to seek “a creative and shared sacrifice solution.”

Adams, while acknowledging she didn’t want changes so drastic that they would adversely impact local students, suggested the board and the district “go back again with a really fine-toothed comb.”

School Superintendent Donna Wolfrom, along with members of the school board, attended the meeting, and defended the budget they had prepared.

“We’ve taken this very seriously from the beginning, and we’ve done that,” Wolfrom said, responding to Adams’ suggestion to trim the fat.

School Board Chairwoman Heather Altenburg said slashing the budget now would be “devastating,” considering it’s unclear what, if any, cutbacks in state educational subsidies will happen.

Referring to both dramatic budget cuts and decreased subsidies, Altenburg said, “That’s a double whammy, and our schools will not look like what we want them to.”

Regarding renegotiating contracts to cut spending, Altenburg said, “I don’t even know if that’s a possibility.”

Garvin, in response, said, “We won’t know if we don’t ask.”

The council, before closing, agreed to revisit the issue at its May 11 meeting, where they will set a date for a public hearing for both municipal and school budgets. Sturgis said that date will likely be May 18.

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