Budget curtailment lands on Portland schools

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PORTLAND — In response to Gov. Paul Lepage’s $12.6 million curtailment order for Maine public schools, the School Department has come up with a plan to cut just over $870,000 from its current-year operating budget.

But the curtailment will also affect planning for the 2013-2014 fiscal year.

Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk said he expects the 2014 fiscal year to be a very difficult one for the district, with a $700 million revenue gap in the next biennial state budget.

He said the opening of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science charter school, rising costs and a continued sluggish economy all present challenges for the district.

“Our students matter most, and we are focused on minimizing the impact of these financial challenges on them,” Caulk said in a Feb. 15 press release. “With personnel our single largest cost, we have already begun discussions with our bargaining units regarding the financial issues and constraints we are facing. Those discussions are ongoing with the goal of maintaining programs and services for our children.”

The governor’s order, which cuts $35.5 million from the state’s total budget, is an effort to balance the state budget. The order was approved by the Appropriations Committee last week and is now awaiting final approval by the full Legislature.

In anticipation of the curtailment order passing, Caulk said the Portland Public Schools must plan for the likelihood that the cuts will be enacted.

“There is no question that these cost reductions will affect students and classroom activities,” Caulk said. “As difficult as it is to absorb these cuts more than halfway into the school year, we remain committed to using all available resources to support student achievement.”

Planned cost-reduction initiatives include freezing hiring for all non-critical positions, including locally funded and grant-funded jobs, which is expected to save between $200,000 and $300,000 in the current fiscal year.

There has also been a freeze on the purchases of books and periodicals, non-essential athletic supplies, co-curricular supplies, use of the Board of Education’s contingency fund and staff travel not contractually obligated.

The department began taking steps last July to reduce this year’s expenditures, including freezing 40 percent of most of the general and instructional supplies which saved a little over $300,000, Caulk said.

Going forward, the department is asking the public for help in considering what should be done with next year’s budget. A public meeting will be held on Feb. 26 at 5:30 p.m. in Room 250 at Casco Bay High School to gather input.

The meeting is an opportunity for members of the public to share opinions and ideas about the choices and options facing the schools before Caulk presents his final budget proposal on March 12 at 7:30 p.m. at Casco Bay High School.

“The choices that we will soon face are difficult ones, and they are choices that belong to our entire community,” said Justin Costa, chairman of the School Board Finance Committee. “These are our city’s schools and all residents deserve to have their voices heard.”

Amber Cronin can be reached at acronin@theforecaster.net or 781-3661 ext. 125. Follow her on Twitter @croninamber.