CAPE ELIZABETH — School Superintendent Donna Wolfrom addressed concerns Monday about the district’s proposed $26.3 million 2021 budget, noting that much of the increase is taken up by preparing to open schools safely in the fall after closing them in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We know that we want our staff back in school and we want our students back in school, and we know that that will be costly,” she told the council June 8.

The proposed school budget is $26.3 million, a 4.7% increase over 2020. If that budget is approved as is, the total combined net school and municipal impact to the tax rate will be a 0.9% increase. That adds up to 18 cents, or a $45 increase for the owner of a $250,000 home.

Wolfrom said the district is trapped in the position of trying not to overspend, but still accommodate potentially large expenses associated with reopening schools in the fall. Wolfrom said the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has organized its guidelines for school reopenings into a series of questions, such as whether schools are prepared to meet health and safety measures, whether students and staff will be adequately masked and whether social distancing can be ensured.

“Moving through those questions presents significant budgetary challenges for school districts,” Wolfrom said.

To illustrate, Wolfrom cited several examples, such as providing thermometers so students can be screened for fever before they enter the buildings, disinfecting rooms between class sessions and the need to separate students on buses, meaning fewer students per bus and therefore more bus runs than usual.

Wolfrom also noted that masks for students, faculty and staff for the beginning of the school year this fall would cost $11,890 and, she said, “It will just get us through mid to late October.”

Wolfrom acknowledged the district could simply continue remote learning, as it has been doing since March, but in a recent survey to parents, she said 80% to 90% preferred sending the kids back to school or at least having a hybrid system of part in-person, part remote learning.

“Parents want their students in school and we want them there,” she said.

During the public hearing, some spoke in support of the district, while others asked for more cuts. Eric Taylor, of 15 Roundabout Lane, said he hoped the district wouldn’t ask faculty and staff to give up a cost-of-living increase this year.

“These people are essential front-line workers,” he said.

Jessica Sullivan, of 19 Rockcrest Drive, noted the town had already slashed its own budget in order to protect an increased school budget.

“While that’s commendable, it shouldn’t be at the expense of our municipal services,” she said.

The council ultimately voted unanimously to schedule a final vote on the budget for June 15, before it is sent to voters in July.

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