2012-02-17 / Opinion

A time for engagement

Last-minute school budget tweaking has become a rite of spring in Brunswick each year, but it won’t work this time.

The annual ritual starts well before spring, when the Brunswick School Board and administrators — working pretty much on their own — begin slogging through months of soul-numbing numbers crunching to come up with a budget to present at a public hearing.

After largely ignoring the budget throughout its developmental phases, townspeople emerge like angry crocuses and narcissus to critique the proposed spending plan.

Every year, some residents find fault with the draft budget. When it’s done, they chime in with suggested adjustments, revisions and “can’t do without” lists.

“You can’t cut freshman sports.”

“Preserve our neighborhood schools.”

“Keep student-teacher ratios low.”

“Raise my property taxes to fund good schools.”

The concerns are valid, but their timing forces school officials to be reactive rather than pro-active.

If parents and townspeople follow the same form this year, it will exacerbate the difficulties town and school officials face in funding the type of public education system Brunswick expects and needs.

With a potential revenue gap of $3 million for 2012-13 and after weathering three years of state education subsidy reductions, the community can’t wait for the School Board and staff to do the heavy lifting this year.

The time for Brunswick residents to engage in the school budget deliberations is now — starting with a public discussion on Feb. 29 — during the budget’s formative stages. They need to participate in a prioritization process to help dictate the budget outcome.

This budget will require more than tweaking. Decisions made between now and the date of a state-mandated municipal referendum on the 2012-13 school budget will likely shape the school system — and the community — for years to come. That’s why it’s imperative that townspeople offer constructive input at this juncture.

Parameters for local funding must be set. School officials need to hear what the community values most about its schools and what share of the funding responsibility property tax payers are willing to shoulder.

After a similar series of sequential state subsidy reductions, the Augusta School Department closed its middle school, sent seventh- and eighthgraders to its new high school and placed sixth-graders in elementary schools. Should Brunswick consider a similar scenario, thereby concentrating the impact of cuts on facilities rather than people?

Does it make sense to explore alternative funding mechanisms, such as “pay to play” participation in sports?

During a period of diminished enrollment, should the town take on greater short-term financial responsibility to maintain school programs that enhance the quality of local education as investments tools to attract new families and businesses?

How does the school budget situation factor into the town’s overall long-term planning?

A community defined in large part by the quality of its schools must come together now to answer these and other difficult questions.

letters@timesrecord.com

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