It’s spring budgeting season, which means it is once again time to demand that local governments sharpen their pencils and do more with less.
Be it city budgets or school budgets, we charge them with identifying priorities, finding efficiencies and making hard choices for the good of public interest.
Those who work to make their own ends meet want to know that the taxes they pay are not being wasted, disrespected or spent without focus.
Taxpayers want to know that city staff and elected officials are making reasonable and responsible choices with the people’s money.
Which is why I’ve spent some time reviewing the Bangor School Department’s proposed fiscal year 2015 budget.
The first thing I see is that the bottom line is larger than last year. It’s an increase of approximately $525,000.
In my world, that’s a lot of money.
The department has more than 600 employees, and, like many businesses and household budgets, it faces market-driven price increases in a few key areas. One of which comes in the form of a health insurance premium increase of 9 percent, which alone is a $403,000 increase. Combine that with a $1 million decrease in state educational funding from just last year, and the proposed increase begins to seem reasonable.
Over the past six years, the combined loss of state and federal contributions to the school budget has been more than $6.8 million. What’s interesting is that, even with the loss in revenue, the average annual increase to the Bangor School Department budget has been a paltry one half of one percent.
With that information, the budget starts to look more responsible.
And when you factor in that the Bangor school system, recognized repeatedly by state, regional and national awards, has a 54-percent qualification rate of free- and reduced-rate lunch students (the federal standard for measuring poverty) it appears many good choices are being made within the system by staff, teachers and elected officials.
During my first two years on the Bangor City Council, I witnessed a need for greater collaboration and understanding between the city council and the school board. While conversations were taking place among a few individuals, group meetings were not happening on any regular basis.
Serving as council chair in 2012, I worked to implement more lines of communication between the two bodies and meet as a group more frequently. This helped us both to understand the challenges, goals and realities of the city and school budgeting process. I’m proud to share that the frequent meetings continue to add value today.
As an alumnus of the Bangor school system, I am happy with the education I received, and I look forward to my kids having the same experience.
My wife and I go to work each day, so they may enjoy their youth, have meaningful experiences and grow up to explore their dreams. Their public education will play a significant role in helping them do just that. I’m also hopeful that they will have an opportunity explore their dreams right here in the community we call home.
Like many before it, this budget has compromises. It delays investments in buildings, facilities, training and resources that would make the experience even better for our kids and our community. The reality is that we still have too many teachers spending too much of their own money on pens, paper and other necessary classroom supplies. And with 24 fewer teachers than just six years ago, they are also putting in more of their time as well.
No budget is perfect. And the numbers seem big when compared with our household budgets, it’s true. In my opinion, a 1-percent increase is a reasonable and responsible number, all things considered.
And with continued performance despite shrinking resources, I think the department should be commended for having the public interest at heart.
I think this budget and our teachers deserve our support. Please join me in voting to approve the budget on June 10.
Cary Weston is a dad to three young kids and a Republican candidate seeking to serve Bangor and Hermon in the Maine Senate.