6 votes kill South Portland plan to save $140K

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Four School Department jobs are expected to be eliminated after one of four unions vetoed a furlough day to meet a mid-year cut in state education funding.

The proposed furlough day, which needed the support of all four school unions, would have saved the district $140,000 in the current budget. Instead, stimulus funds earmarked for next year’s budget will be used to fill the gap.

Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin said using the furlough option would have prevented four positions from being eliminated in next year’s budget.

“We are disappointed with the results,” Godin said. “But I appreciate the willingness of the associations to put the idea of a furlough day before their members.”

South Portland faces a $1.2 million mid-year cut in state education funds, and will lose even more next year.

Godin said administrators were planning on using nearly $1.4 million in remaining stimulus money to help offset a $2.4 million cut anticipated in state education funds next year. That deficit is forcing leaders to consider cutting as many as 50 positions, closing school buildings and instituting pay-to-participate activities, she said.

South Portland schools currently employ about 630 people, who are represented by four unions. Godin said all four unions had to agree to the furlough day because of their contracts.

If the unions had supported the plan, South Portland would have also needed a waiver from the state Department of Education, because the district currently has the minimum number of student and teacher days, 175 and 180, respectively.

DOE spokesman David Connerty-Marin said Commissioner Susan Gendron is open to granting waivers for reducing teacher in-service days, but would not grant waivers for furloughs that reduce student days.

The proposed furlough would have been taken on April 26, a teacher in-service day. In December, the School Board voted to change the school calender to preserve the opportunity for a furlough.

The South Portland Service Employee’s Union, which represents 55 employees in the maintenance, custodial, food service and transportation areas, was the union that voted against the plan.

“While we truly do sympathize with the current economic conditions here and around the country, we do not feel the answers lie within having public servants fund public education,” union President Philip Terrano said in a press release.

SEU Vice President Stephen Doherty said the union defeated the furlough proposal by an 18-12 vote Feb. 10 at South Portland High School.

“We remain completely dedicated to doing everything within our power to assist in bringing forth new and creative ideas that we are confident will help as the dialog continues,” Terrano said.

Administrators Association President Kathy Germani said her 14-member union was nearly unanimous in its approval of the furlough day, even after agreeing to a pay freeze last year.

Lisa Ranger, president of the Educational Support Professionals Association, which represents 135 clerks, office managers and educational technicians, said her union members approved the furlough day because they were concerned about potential job losses.

“I am personally disappointed that the furlough did not pass,” Ranger said. “We all understand times are tough (and) we all want to keep our jobs.”

Teacher’s Association President Tom Major said the union that represents more than 200 teachers narrowly approved the furlough. Major would not release the actual vote, but said about 60 percent of his union members voted and the margin was close.

Prior to the vote, Major said he discussed a list of pros and cons union with members.

“I didn’t try to sway the members one way or the other,” he said. “My personal objective was that we make a decision without too much dissension and acrimony among ourselves and I think we achieved that.”

While some teachers opposed the furlough because they didn’t feel as though they should be “taxed” to balance the budget, Major said reasons to support the proposal would be help the district during tough economic times, to save jobs and to avoid an increased workload for remaining staff.

“The other reason was to show some good will to the City Council,” he said of the elected officials who ultimately set the bottom line for school spending. “As the budget discussions go forward, a sign of good faith might have some currency.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-366 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net