2013-04-05 / Front Page

Cape adds to fund

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH — The Cape Elizabeth Board of Education approved a $22.5 million budget for the 2013-2014 year that will increase the current budget by 3.5 percent, or $762,000.

The school board discussed the budget for the upcoming year in workshop sessions spanning a month after Cape Elizabeth Superintendent Meredith Nadeau put forth her proposal on Feb. 26. The budget will next be reviewed by the town council finance committee on Wednesday, April 10. Finally, the budget will go to Cape Elizabeth citizens in a Tuesday, May 14 vote.

The increase, Nadeau said, is caused mostly by a $300,000 shift in teacher retirement costs that Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial budget proposal would shift from the state’s responsibility to municipalities. The state would allocate more general purpose funds to the Cape Elizabeth schools, but Nadeau said the combined effect is a $109,000 net loss.

Additionally, Nadeau’s proposal includes a $151,000 increase in capital improvements and facilities spending. In the fall, a study performed by Portland engineering firm Harriman identified $10 million in capital needs in school and town facilities. Nadeau said the district must allocate more funds to its facilities in the future in order to make a progress in addressing some of the most pressing needs the study identified.

“Increasing our overall spending in that area is critical to making sure that we have sound, healthy facilities for learning both now and in the future,” Nadeau wrote in a letter dated March 19.

Nadeau’s proposal recommended a 3.3 percent increase, or $712,000, but the board chose to add an additional $10,000 to keep a nurse at each school and a half-time nursing assistant as well as $40,000 to increase the district’s contingency account from $100,000 to $140,000. The contingency funds allow the district to have a safety net available should any emergencies or unexpected expenses come up throughout the year.

Board member David Hillman proposed the change in the school board’s budget workshop March 28. Hillman said the increase will help the district absorb future funding cuts either from state curtailments or revenue decreases that could result from the federal sequester. The small increase, Hillman explained, would avoid what he called a “worst-case scenario” in which the department was unprepared for a curtailment and was forced to lay off teachers during the school year.

“I don’t want to do that midyear,” Hillman said. “The educational cost of that I think is enormous.”

Cape Elizabeth schools absorbed a $197,000 budget curtailment this year as part of a $35.5 million budget reduction LePage announced in December. The school district was able to make the cuts without affecting educational programs by using the contingency fund and by finding savings in energy and health care costs.

Hillman originally supported doubling the 2013-2014 contingency account to $200,000, which would have translated to a 3.8 percent overall school budget increase, but the rest of the board did not support presenting such a large increase to voters.

Board Chairman John Christie said he supported a small increase in the contingency fund to protect the district this year, but he cautioned the board not to look too far past 2014.

“I’m concerned about what happens to us next year. Asking the taxpayers to front more today so we don’t increase taxes as much next year, to me is not what we’re here to try to do,” Christie said.

However, board member Mary Townsend said it was long-term planning in past years that helped the Cape Elizabeth school district avoid the sharp budget increases and difficult decisions some other cities and towns in Maine are facing.

“I think we have been very mindful of trying to keep taxes as low was we can. I would not see this as anything that would misguide (taxpayers) or make them feel they couldn’t trust us,” Townsend said. “I think this is prudent and responsible.”

The town council will review the school budget this month in conjunction with the $9 million municipal budget proposed by Town Manager Mike McGovern. While the school budget will ultimately be decided by voters, the final stage of review for the municipal budget will be an April 29 public forum and council vote.

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