Westbrook schools avoid drama, add jobs without increasing local taxes

All across the state today, we’re looking at results from yesterday’s school budget validation votes. The state-mandated second step in the annual local school budget approval process has added some drama to the June election days, which for many Maine communities had only previously attracted attention when political primaries for major offices came around.

Now — as a byproduct of the legislation five years ago forcing school consolidations across the state — many communities are placing their public school budget referendums on those already established second June Tuesday vote dates. (The first step in the public approval process now required is a city council or town meeting-style vote which typically takes place a few weeks before the polls open.)

Lately, the stories across the state when it comes to school spending have been pretty roundly crisis or conflict stories.

Here in Portland, where the public vote took place last month, city and school officials were left to sell a spending plan that included about 40 job cuts and still increased taxes, due in large part to reductions in state aid.

Up in the Bath-area Regional School Unit 1, where the budget was passed last week, 7.2 percent more in local tax money was sought, and the district is embroiled in a lawsuit challenging how costs are shared among its five member communities.

In Regional School Unit 5, a nearly $17 million bond to renovate Freeport High School was defeated at the polls Tuesday, further illustrating what for that three-town district has been an ongoing fissure between the larger Freeport and smaller neighbors Durham and Pownal (Freeport voters approved the renovation, but the bond failed lopsidedly enough in Durham and Pownal that it didn’t matter).

Those are just a couple of examples.

If you scroll down the roundup of school budget votes around Maine, you find a lot of news about school budgets that either didn’t pass, raised taxes, cut jobs and services, or had some combination of those qualities. So when you see a district where there doesn’t seem to be any looming catastrophe, it jumps out at you.

That’s where you have the Westbrook School Department. That district’s $32.1 million budget, which was approved by a 3-1 margin at the polls Tuesday, featured no local tax increase and reportedly included 12 new positions — a net of three, if you count the outsourcing of five maintenance jobs and elimination of four vacant positions that won’t be filled.

Westbrook Superintendent Marc Edward Gousse wrote this in a letter to voters urging support of the spending plan:

[T]he 2013-14 school budget maintains all existing present programming to include: Art, music, Gifted and Talented, vocational, honors/Advanced Placement, credit recovery, alternative learning, Adult and Community Education, Title I, pre-[kindergarten], nursing, guidance, co-curricular and athletics. With voter approval, this budget will fund these and other instructional programs while the school department continues to look for ways ‘to do more with less.’

In fairness, Westbrook did get a little bit of good luck this time around. They’re actually doing more with more, as the $32.1 million budget is a $1.4 million increase compared to last year, but the additional spending is largely offset by a nearly $900,000 hike in state aid, something its neighbors in Portland would have proverbially killed for after seeing their school subsidies from Augusta drop by more than $3.5 million since 2010.

But Westbrook’s budgetary success isn’t just a result of a lucky shift in the state funding formula — which considers populations and property values when figuring out who gets what.

School leaders in Westbrook ran a tight enough ship during the current fiscal year to have $114,000 in carryover funds to help offset whatever spending increase the state aid jump didn’t cover. The district also began more aggressively seeking grant funding, and is budgeting for $64,000 in new revenues from grant sources that weren’t part of the mix for the current fiscal year budget.

Other savings were realized through new energy efficiencies and collaborations with other nearby schools and nonprofits to provide programs and services at a lower shared cost.

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Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.