YORK, Maine – Budget Committee chair Nan Graves told school officials at a recent committee meeting to sharpen their pencils and pare down projected spending for next year. Her position received mixed support from the rest of the committee, and resulted in a request from School Committee members to take a holistic look at not only where the department has been but where it’s going.
The discussion came at the conclusion of the Budget Committee’s initial review of the fiscal year 2020 school budget, although school officials will be back on Jan. 22 for further discussions, and a public hearing is set for Jan. 31.
Graves prefaced her remarks by saying that from FY2016 to the projected 2020 budget, per pupil costs have increased by 29 percent. Most recent Department of Education figures are from fiscal year 2017, when the average per pupil cost was $11,800. York’s per pupil cost that year was $15,856, on par with the Wells-Ogunquit CSD but higher than Falmouth, Yarmouth or Cape Elizabeth.
“This is a bad trend,” she said. “I appreciate that Lou (superintendent Lou Goscinski) is looking at efficiencies, but from a budget standpoint I don’t see how we can sustain this over time. We’re going to be in deep trouble.”
The proposed FY2020 budget is up 4.4 percent, with zero to modest increases across the board and with no new programs. Some 80 percent is taken up with teacher salaries and benefits. The most recent teacher contract calls for much smaller salary increases than the previous contract. Moreover, Goscinski, who started in July, has said he intends to thoroughly analyze staffing levels systemwide.
Graves said she appreciates all of that, but said Social Security increases for those on fixed incomes are less than 3 percent. “If you take 4.4 percent and add it to increased valuation of homes, it puts a lot of people in town in a really bad place.”
Goscinski expressed concern about Graves’ request. “I feel like I’ve been honest in coming to a reasonable budget, without fat. If we cut, we’re cutting into marrow. I’ll take a look and do the best I can,” he said.
School Committee chair Brenda Alexander then asked for all of the other members to voice their opinion, “so I understand whether this is the takeaway message.”
Graves received support from Jerry Allen and Nelson Giordano, who has been unable to attend recently but has been watching the meetings. Allen, who said he’s studied the budget carefully, suggested one of the places to look for savings may be in the athletics budget, with an eye to the number of sports offered at the high school.
“That could be a little streamlined,” he said. “But to be honest with you, it’s hard to see where you can cut without nickel and diming.”
Budget Committee members Mike Spencer and Jim Smith took the opposite view from Graves. “From my perspective, we have already gone past the tipping point and into bone and marrow,” said Spencer. “We have to be cognizant of all taxpayers in town. I know there are people who struggle, but there is a broader community and kids are a part of it. I would struggle with removing anything.”
“I’m supportive of what you’ve brought to us,” said Smith. He said that plans to reduce revenue by eliminating sports “pay to play” fees “is probably a good thing. But the disadvantage is you’re losing revenue. Overall, though, I’m very supportive.”
Heather Campbell said she was making an “observation, not an overall opinion” of the budget. She said she appreciates the fact that the schools are working with consortiums to reduce overall costs, and she’s like to see the department look at doing more of that. “I believe the schools are working really hard every day to provide the best experience for every kid. The effort and passion is there. As a Budget Committee member, I hope new things are on the horizon. I support a budget that keeps our school in really good shape.”
Tom Carnicelli said this has been “a darned good year for schools when progress has been made. I don’t know how far we can go beyond that,” he said, but added that the two committees “need to look at” the high per-pupil costs.
School Committee member Julie Eneman cautioned the Budget Committee to look more broadly, and realize that “school has gone from a basic education to really being a point of care provider. The number of students with anxiety and depression alone is significant. How do you provide education for students with mental health issues?” she said. “It’s hard to find the right balance. But we have worked really hard to put forward a reasonable budget.”