2017-03-09 / News

Legislative officials hear school budget concerns

By Garrick Hoffman
Staff Writer


Saco resident Al Sicard takes a moment to share his thoughts on the proposed school budget cuts at a meeting with Sen. Justin Chenette and Rep. Maggie O’Neil on Sunday, March 5. Sicard asked, “How long can Augusta keep going on without listening to the will of the people?”(Garrick Hoffman photo) Saco resident Al Sicard takes a moment to share his thoughts on the proposed school budget cuts at a meeting with Sen. Justin Chenette and Rep. Maggie O’Neil on Sunday, March 5. Sicard asked, “How long can Augusta keep going on without listening to the will of the people?”(Garrick Hoffman photo) SACO – More than 30 people filled the town clerk’s room at Saco City Hall to hear Sen. Justin Chenette of Saco and State Rep. Maggie O’Neil of District 15, both Democrats, speak about the proposed Saco school budget cuts. The town hall-style meeting enabled Saco residents to ask questions to the senator and the representative, and address concerns about the cuts.

Chenette began the meeting by explaining how the proposed state budget will affect Saco’s budget. He said in terms of funding from the state to Saco, there is a 2.5 percent difference from last fiscal year to the current fiscal year, with a deficiency of more than $278,000. About 65 percent of all school districts in Maine will see a reduction from state funding, he said.


Tracey Collins, Saco resident and head of Maine’s Start School Later chapter, a national advocacy group that helps local parents advocate for starting school at a later hour, speaks to Sen. Justin Chenette and Rep. Maggie O’Neil. (Garrick Hoffman photo) Tracey Collins, Saco resident and head of Maine’s Start School Later chapter, a national advocacy group that helps local parents advocate for starting school at a later hour, speaks to Sen. Justin Chenette and Rep. Maggie O’Neil. (Garrick Hoffman photo) Chenette said that after Question 2 passed last November, a 3 percent tax surcharge was added on incomes exceeding $200,000, which Gov. Paul LePage included in the budget. But what isn’t commonly reported, Chenette said, is that although LePage included the surcharge in the budget, he reduced the income tax to 2.75 percent from 5.75 percent as a flat tax, and added the 3 percent surcharge to all Maine residents. The money from this surcharge is not directed to the designated education fund as approved by Question 2 voters in November.

“If we don’t abide by what the voters voted on, that’s a major concern,” Chenette said. “I think we established that if we get to 55 percent for education (funding) by the state share, that ends up trickling down on a positive level in communities like ours.”

The 55 percent of funding refers to a voter-approved agreement in 2004 that requires the state to fund that amount to all schools in Maine, which it has never done, according to the website for Stand Up for Students, the Question 2 advocacy group.

“You touched upon the 55 percent. Will that be funded in our lifetime?” asked Al Sicard of Saco. He went on to ask, “This new tax on the wealthy. How long can Augusta keep going on without listening to the will of the people?”

Sicard said LePage went on Fox News and bragged about Maine having a billion dollars in the bank, but opposes spending money.

Chenette said Maine has about $150 million in a rainy day fund, and $30 million has just been added, which could be used to fund Maine schools, including Saco. He said Saco should be prioritized to receive some of that funding.

“We’re already at a rainy day when it comes to our schools,” Chenette said, “so the time to invest in our schools is now.”

Tracey Collins, a Saco resident and a parent of three in the school district, asked Chenette how accessible the funds are.

Chenette said it would be difficult for Saco to access the funds because many of his Republican colleagues in Augusta wish to prioritize the fund by abstaining from spending the money and continuing to add to it. This is frustrating and disconcerting, Chenette said.

“Look at what we need to be funding right now,” Chenette said. “We’re making cuts left and right in (the Department of Health and Human Services), we’re consistently making cuts in our education system, and for what – so we can have this pool of money so that one day we can spend it on – who? Who are we spending the money on?”

Christina Shae, a Saco resident who helped organize the March 5 event, asked Chenette to clarify how the amount of money is set to fund Thornton Academy in lieu of budget arrangements from Augusta.

Chenette said there is a contract between municipalities and Thornton Academy and a set number in terms of what the average per-person cost is, but because there is no school construction money allocated for town academies, the state relies on income based funding. The state sets the percentage of funding, and municipalities need to meet that, which is 7 percent.

Saco receives about zero percent of funding for school construction from the state, said Kevin Roche, Ward 4 city councilor.

Barbara Colman, a member of watchdog group Saco Citizens for Sensible Government, said the cuts principally stem from a variety of sources such as the state’s proposed budget, input from individuals in the Saco Teachers’ Association and the school leadership team, and directions given to the school board which have not officially gone all the way through its process.

“(The school board was) faced with what they needed to do based on information uptake during the meeting and that is how these cuts have come about, so I have to defend the school board and superintendent because they were directed to do something and we have not yet gotten to the point of making it a council decision on whether or not to make all those cuts at this point.

“Two things apply,” she said. “We’ve got a school in the city, and because charter requires it to be finalized without a council, council does have final say to reject or not, but they just go back to the number. Council has not given a number. So that’s a very important fact for everybody to understand: it is not directed from council yet.”

Chenette said although going to city council and school board meetings is beneficial, contacting legislators would be more effective.

“I’m just looking at it from my role. It’s more helpful to actually be talking to other legislators than it is the school board or the council . . . because if we’re not able to make the necessary pushback to the changes in this budget, it really won’t matter much what you say to the council or the school board . . . I find that we’re having a hard time pushing back if we don’t have some fire power.”

These remarks are similar to what Kevin Lafortune, Ward 4 school board member, said at a Feb. 22 meeting when the proposed budget cuts were announced. Lafortune urged people to contact their senators and representatives, who he said are the only ones that can do anything that can be done about the budget cuts.

“This is where your emails come in,” O’Neil said, “because even though (emailing) feels futile, we need to talk about how we can help you focus your testimony . . . It will be very important.”

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