Auditor praises financial operations at South Portland schools

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SOUTH PORTLAND — While School Board members brace themselves for a difficult budget process for the next fiscal year, the accountant who audited current finances praised School Department operations during Monday’s meeting.

Hank Farrah, a principal of Runyon Kersteen Ouellette, said stewardship of the $40 million department budget showed “no material weaknesses or significant deficiencies.”

Farrah presented his audit findings to the board as part of Superintendent Suzanne Godin’s report at the 50-minute meeting in City Hall. He noted that with the exception of a $80,000 reduction of Medicaid reimbursements from the state, revenue and expense forecasts were generally accurate.

He added that some better record keeping could allow the department to get more reimbursements from the state for school lunch subsidies, but generally complimented the department for its oversight and preparation for the annual audit.

The verbal praise was necessary because “we never tell you anything good in writing, we never will,” Farrah said.

Godin and District 2 representative Sara Goldberg said a spending freeze in areas such as professional development fees, and savings on budgeted salaries and benefits between $150,000 and $200,000, will help the department weather a $410,000 loss of general purpose aid from the Maine Department of Education.

The education aid curtailment is part of the overall $12.6 million freeze in state education spending that is a component of the overall $35.5 million freeze ordered by Gov. Paul LePage late last month. Last week, legislators approved the curtailment needed to balance the current state budget.

Reporting for the board finance committee, Goldberg warned crafting the fiscal year 2014 budget will not be easy.

“Make sure the community knows that,” she said.

Godin also presented elements of an emergency operations plan detailing comprehensive operations for a variety of potential incidents including lockdowns due to violence, natural disasters and hazardous material spills or leaks.

The color-coded plans are accompanied by operations plans for specific schools and outline what teachers and administrators need to do to coordinate with city emergency responders. Godin said schools have fire drills several times each year and rehearse lockdown procedures at least once a year.

In 2011, school officials joined police, fire and emergency personnel in an “active shooter” drill at Mahoney Middle School that simulated an attack by an armed intruder.

The current plan will be reviewed at an upcoming workshop preceding a likely vote at the Feb. 11 board meeting.

Board members, with James Gilboy and Richard Matthews unable to attend, approved updated bullying and hazing policies first presented last month.

The policies were once combined, but a new state law approved by the Legislature last spring requires a separate bullying policy that also covers cyberbullying.

The hazing policy revision amends a few phrases, but the bullying policy requires reporting forms, action forms, and designates selected school administrators to be responsible for enforcing the policy and following up on complaints.

The policy allows anonymous complaints about bullying, but prohibits staff or students from punishment based only on anonymous complaints. School staff are required to report any instances of bullying witnessed and can be dismissed for failing to do so.

Rep. Terry Morrison, D-South Portland, sponsored the anti-bullying law that set the policy changes in motion.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.