The one thing everyone at the last Brewer City Council meeting could agree upon was that this year’s city and school budgets were ugly. A perfect budget would include full services for our residents, a forward-thinking and well-rounded complement of offerings for our students, and a flat mil rate. It became obvious very quickly that this was not to happen for fiscal year 2018.
The city side of the budget was not easy, with some rising costs and a continued minimal support from the state. We did make cuts, but they would be not enough to allow the full school request.
The school side of the budget was nearly impossible. Before the school even began the budget process, costs for fiscal year 17 had risen dramatically to support current students. By early 2017, the superintendent had to implement a spending freeze, allocating any leftover funds to hire teachers and ed techs to cover the students entering the system. The first grade alone added enough students to require an extra classroom teacher, and more than 10 special education students requiring one-to-one supervision by an ed tech came to Brewer.
In addition to the federally mandated expenses for special education, the state had changed the rules on high school graduation. Beginning next year, the incoming ninth-grade class will have to acquire a “ proficiency-based diploma” rather than the traditional diploma, which triggers even more costs.
Just the mandates required spending an additional $800,000.
Throughout the year, the school department has attempted to be as transparent as possible in reporting the number of students coming in and the related costs. Given the variety of ways to measure students — those moving in and moving out, Brewer residents versus sending towns, special ed versus not — it is no wonder that there are questions as to the numbers. As the council’s liaison to the school committee, I can say that the numbers never stopped changing, but they never seemed to go down. I can also say the school department is willing to be an open book and explain them to anyone who wants to learn the system.
Let me be clear: I do not believe the school department “cooked the books” to justify their budget requests.
Last Tuesday, the City Council needed to make some very difficult decisions on the budgets. As a council we need to balance the impact of property taxes on our residents and businesses with the need to have a strong school system, which in itself is an economic development asset. It was determined months ago that an additional $1 million in funding on the taxpayers’ backs would be unacceptable. At the same time, not covering federal and state mandates would be unconscionable and open the school to penalties and lawsuits.
In the end, the council unanimously voted to approve the budgets with some amendments, but not a single one of us believes the budget to be the best answer for the city of Brewer, its residents and businesses, and its school system. I do believe, however, that it was the best solution for our circumstances.
There is a way we can change these circumstances. That solution comes from Augusta. Twice the people of Maine have voted to tell the state to pay for 55 percent of the costs of our schools. They have yet to do it.
Additionally, the state is supposed to give 5 percent of its income back to municipalities to pay for the infrastructure that municipalities put in place so that the state can collect income and sales taxes, also known as “municipal revenue sharing.” Augusta has not held up on their side of the deal, short-changing the municipalities almost every year since the deal was struck.
If you are a Brewer resident or live in a sending town and are upset about this budget, I understand. I am, too. It’s still ugly. That said, I recommend Brewer residents vote yes on the school budget Tuesday, as I think this is the best we can do with what we have.
But even more so, I recommend you call our local legislators and ask them to fully fund our schools to 55 percent and our municipalities to 5 percent.
Bev Uhlenhake is a Brewer city councilor. She is the council’s liaison to the school committee.