2015-05-22 / Front Page

School budget passes overwhelmingly

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Voters in RSU 21 approved a $40.19 million operating budget for the 2015-2016 school by an overwhelming margin Tuesday, May 12, but the final hurdle is still to come.

It took 168 voters — that’s 0.01 percent of registered voters in Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel —just 45 minutes to plow through the 17 warrant articles that make up the spending plan for the next fiscal year, to start July 1.

During the annual district budget meeting, held at Kennebunk High School, all articles but one passed by a show of hands, 167-1. One article — to appropriate $7.2 million from local taxation to fund programming and costs not covered by the state’s essential programs and services funding model — was conducted via secret ballot, per state law. That item also passed, 162-4

“It was gratifying to see overwhelming taxpayer support for a school budget that was highlighted by an increase in operating expenses of less than 1 percent,” interim Superintendent Dr. Kevin Crowley said after the meeting. “This is one of the lowest school budget increases in recent years and one that continues to demonstrate the school board's commitment to build programming and operations based on needs and not wants.”

Crowley’s “less than one percent” figure counts for only what he terms “operating expenses.” It does not count $500,000 raised from taxation to make the first payment next year on a $56.5 million building bond. That bond question is on the June 9 ballot and, if voters turn it down, the $500,000 will be transferred at the end of the fiscal year into a reserve account to cover future building repairs, Crowley has said.

Also not included is $269,000 described by Crowley as “an increase in mandated increases.”

That figure includes a $120,000 hike in teacher retirement costs that, Crowley says, “the state has neglected to pay and is pushing down on local taxpayers.”

The other $149,000 also will go toward annual payments into the Maine Public Employees Retirement System. That’s the annual bill previously paid by the district using annual interest in a reserve account built from overpayments into the retirement system made in the 1990s. However, the state determined this past year that, due to new accounting standards, it can no longer manage that account. Future retirement payments must be part of the district’s local budget, state officials have said.

The Department of Education made RSU 21 refund all $1.81 million built up in the retirement reserve account to Kennebunk and Kennebunkport. That money will be used to reduce tax assessments for education in those two towns during the 2017-2019 fiscal years. Arundel did not join the district until 2008 and will have to refund $33,722 paid out of the reserve account on its behalf since that time.

With the $769,000 not counted by Crowley, the hike in school spending for the coming year tops $1.12 million, for an annual increase of 2.88 percent. Meanwhile, the share of the budget borne by local taxpayers is slated to go up 3.78 percent. Neither figure includes $118,366 raised for adult education.

If approved by voters at the June 9 budget validation referendum, the new school budget will add $44.62 per $100,000 of assessed value to homes in Arundel, an increase of 3.08 percent. The increase per $100,000 of value would be $42.89 in Kennebunk and $9.69 in Kennebunk- port — up 2.88 percent and 1.27 percent, respectively.

“I would like to thank all those citizens who came out in support of the budget,” Crowley said. “Additionally, I would like to point out the efforts of Business Manager Bruce Rudolph and the RSU 21 finance committee for their tireless work in helping to shape the budget.”

However, not all members of the finance committee are quite so willing to describe their efforts as “tireless.”

School board member Jeffrey Cole of Kennebunk sits on that committee and he says the budget passed through its hands to the full school board largely as presented by Crowley in February.

“As a finance committee member, I can’t say that I’m satisfied the budget was completely vetted,” he said on Thursday, May 14. “We met for a total of six hours in three meetings. I don’t know how anyone can say a $40 million budget has been completely vetted in just six hours.”

Cole credited Crowley with holding the line on just about everything beyond salaries and benefits, but because those spending categories account for 68 percent of the total school budget, Cole said he remains concerned about “constant increases in spending.”

“In my view, discussions about a strategy to reduce the budget never happened,” he said. “The budget that came out of the finance committee is pretty much what came down from administration.”

Although attendees at the district budget meeting had the power to amend any of the warrant articles and decrease them, no attempt was made. In fact, few people even spoke, leaving Cole the “lone dissenter,” as he called it.

That one person who voted against all of the budget articles? It was him.

“What was pretty obvious to me and others who have a longer history here than me, is that it (the voting body gathered at the district budget meeting) was pretty much made up of people with a vested interest in the school budget in terms of employment, and other ardent supporters of the school system,” said Cole.

“It’s important to note that I am speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the board in any way,” he said. “My views are not shared by many there. But, in my view, there are good reasons for people to take a good, hard look at what’s being spent on education, locally.”

The school budget will now go to an up-or-down decision at the annual validation referendum, to be held at polling places in all three district towns on June 9.

“That will be the real vote,” Cole said. “This was just a formality.”

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