BIDDEFORD — The City Council has approved a school budget for the next fiscal year that delivers an impact to taxpayers of less than 1 percent.

On July 14, it will be the voters turn to validate the school spending plan.

The taxpayer contribution to the budget is pegged at $19.2 million, about .80 percent more than in the current year.

The School Department had proposed a more robust budget in March, which would have amounted to more than a 3 percent increase, but then pared it considerably as the coronavirus brought economic uncertainty, business pauses, and unemployment.

“We do expect to have challenging times in the fall, and we recognize the challenges communities face,” Superintendent Jeremy Ray told the City Council on Tuesday, May 19. “The staff is working hard as we prepare for what a new life in school will look like, whenever we get back there.”

At a prior meeting, Ray said the School Department is preparing for a return in the fall as usual, for a return with pauses, a delayed return, and other possible scenarios.

The cost of education for Biddeford students in kindergarten through grade 12 under the state’s Essential Program and Services model is pegged at about $31.1 million; the total spending plan, which includes debt service, transportation and other factors not included in the essential programs and services model, is about $39.2 million.

During a presentation earlier this month, Ray outlined the impact of COVID-19, including such topics as how students catch up from being out of the classroom for a lengthy period of time — there has been no in classroom instruction since March 13; whether there might be a reduction in state revenue for municipalities and schools; the impact on children living in poverty; and how the federal CARES Act plays a role; among other factors.

Ray also noted that health insurance is up 8 percent, and snow removal, tech hardware, and liability insurance are also increasing. There are some new positions in the budget, and salary increases — though those in upper leadership positions won’t be seeing a wage increase in the next fiscal year.

New and reworked positions include two new elementary school teachers due to class size increases; three new resiliency coordinators; changing an ed tech position to a math teaching position; a reworked position for a technology/computer repair position; a new special education job coach; and a special education referral coordinator.

There were numerous positions and items not funded, ranging from more teachers and education technicians to building repairs like new bathroom tile and painting at one of the schools, to some security features.

On May 19, City Council President John McCurry proposed adding a couple of items back in — and before doing so, sought and received confirmation from Ray that the School Department can spend only the revenue that flows in.

McCurry said he wanted to add $40,000 to provide vacation and after school camps currently unfunded, and $75,000 for some added school security features at the primary and intermediate schools.

A Learning Works grant, which provided vacation and after school camps for older students, is moving to a Pre-K to grade three model, leaving grades four and five without those programs, said Ray.

“I understand this is a tough year for everything,” said McCurry.”But I think shortchanging our children would be a shame.”

“These programs were important before this (coronavirus) occurred,” said Councilor Michael Ready. “For some of these kids, it is their only safe space. It is an investment, the money we spend now will be saved down the road.”

Councilor Stephen St. Cyr said he’d consider supporting the increase, if $115,000 in savings could be found elsewhere, and noted the council was adding funds without knowing the municipal side of the budget, which is being re-worked. He said he isn’t opposed to the positions, but that the economy is “shut down like we’ve never seen before.” St. Cyr said existing positions are fully funded, and that raises and benefits are intact. “Contrast that with people (having) the ability to pay,” said St. Cyr.

“I’m very much in support of taking care of our children,” said Councilor Marc Lessard. “I am in support of people struggling to pay their taxes and small business people struggling …”

Councilor Amy Clearwater noted that if the revenue doesn’t flow in, the money won’t be spent.

The budget presented by Ray had come in at a .37 increase in the impact to taxpayers, with the addition presented by McCurry, the increase is .80 percent.

The vote to approve the education budget was narrowly in favor, with five councilors, McCurry, Clearwater, Ready, Robert Quattrone, and Doris Ortiz, voting in favor. Four opposed were St. Cyr, Lessard, Norman Belanger, and William Emhiser.

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