'Bleak' budget season begins for Portland schools

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PORTLAND — Only a handful of residents last week took advantage of a public hearing that opened the School Board’s budget deliberations for fiscal 2012.

Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. began the meeting at King Middle School by laying out a budget scenario in which the district will likely face a $6.1 million revenue shortfall.

Next year will be the first year the district will not receive stimulus money from the federal government to help offset the effects of the recession, Morse said. 

And Morse suggested the remaining portion of funding the district receives from the state may come under attack by the new Legislature, which may reduce funding for communities with large immigrant populations.

Morse said it would be politically expedient to redirect immigrant funding from Portland and Lewiston to rural communities.

“We don’t know that is going to happen, but there is a strong rumor mill going through Augusta,” he said.

Meanwhile, Morse said the City Council has indicated that school officials should produce a budget that does not increase the local tax rate of $17.92 per $1,000 of valuation.

“That’s a pretty bleak picture,” Morse said. “Unlike the federal government, we don’t have our own printing press.”

The district, however, does have $1.8 million in federal jobs bill money to help offset that deficit.

Morse said the food service budget will likely be cut in half next year, from $750,000 to $350,000, since the district is using its central kitchen to prepare meals for other organizations.

Resident Ken Farber said that, with four union contracts up for negotiation this year, he hopes the district will assemble a strong negotiating team and work creatively with each bargaining unit to control labor costs, which account for about 80 percent of school spending.

The district needs to find “a solution to address really one of the core budgetary issues we are facing here,” he said.

Morse indicated later that he had “very strong direction” from the School Board to control costs in future contracts.

Farber, whose two children attended King, said he believes the diversity of the district adds value to the education, but not without a cost.

He said the district should work with the congressional delegation to increase federal funding to communities with large immigrant populations.

“We may not have a solution for this coming year,” Farber said. “As a long-term effort, I think we ought to be working on legislation with our delegation that might provide that kind of support.”

Cathy Hodson, a parent of two middle school students, asked the board to preserve the district’s family living, or sex education, program, which has been targeted for cuts in recent budgets.

The School Department currently has one family living teacher, after two others resigned.

Hodson, who also asked that middle school sports be preserved, said she is concerned that regular classroom teachers aren’t rigorously teaching the subject.

“It just really concerns me,” she said. “We really could be shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Resident Mike Nicholai, however, said the board should not preserve programs at all costs, especially by increasing property taxes.

“Our big concern now is the expense to stay in our home,” he said. “The taxes are very high in Portland.”

Nicholai said parents need to take a more active role in their child’s education, when the district cannot fully fund programs.

Steven Scharf, meanwhile, suggested the district consider closing down the Cliff Island School, which costs about $120,000 to educate only a handful of students.

Scharf also cautioned the board against believing that voter approval of fiscally responsible budgets are a mandate to raise taxes.

“If you were to come in with a non-responsible budget, I can assure you the taxpayers of Portland will not approve that,” he said.

Morse said he is scheduled to present a budget framework to the School Board in a workshop on Feb. 8 and deliver a detailed spending plan on March 1.

The board is scheduled to vote on the budget on April 4 and the council will vote on April 25, ahead of the May 10 budget referendum.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbilllings@theforecaster.net