Challenges ahead for South Portland council, School Board

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Collaboration got a jump start Wednesday night as city councilors and School Board members discussed a wide range of topics at a 2 1/2-hour City Hall workshop.

From an assessment of municipal and school operations to the possible budgetary challenges coming next year, current and incoming councilors and board members swapped thoughts and observations in a workshop Mayor Patti Smith said was overdue.

The outlook from City Manager Jim Gailey and School Superintendent Suzanne Godin was by no means dire. But it is fraught with challenges as the council makes a priority of constructing a new facility for the public works, transportation and parks and recreation departments, and school officials grapple with expiring grants and the possible financial hit caused by students enrolling in charter schools.

The workshop featured an extended discussion about selecting School Board members to fill vacant seats and whether the annual school budget referendum should coincide with June state primary and referendum elections.

Councilors and board members praised almost all of the selection process leading to the appointment of new at-large School Board member Mary House, who was named to replace Jeffrey Selser. Under terms of the City Charter, her seat will be up for election next November, even though Selser was elected to a three-year term last year.

House was nominated from a field of six applicants who provided resumes, written materials and answered questions during a Nov. 13 workshop. It was the small huddles of councilors after the question-and-answer session as they decided on a nominee that rankled Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis and School Board members Richard Carter and Richard Matthews.

“It was an executive session held in public,” said Carter, who was nominated to be the new School Board chairman in a Nov. 14 caucus of board members.

Matthews said the conversations to make House the nominee were a “misjudgement,” but a consensus to amend the City Charter to elect someone to fill a School Board vacancy did not develop. Instead, there will be more review of a proposed protocol to be included in standing council rules, with a provision that nominations and public discussion will take place at the first council meeting after a workshop where board applicants present themselves.

Godin said the advent of charter schools, with the opening next fall of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland could drain revenues from the state and incur district expenses if home-schooled or children attending private schools opt for a charter school.

Up to 10 percent of freshmen and sophomores enrolled in city schools could be accepted to a charter school, and about $7,600 per student in state subsidies could be diverted from school district revenues. An initial estimate maximizes the revenue hit at about $300,000, based on full available enrollment at charter schools by city students.

City Finance Director Greg L’Heureux noted the increases in the tax rate needed for debt service on the bonds funding high school renovation and construction will be leveling off in the next three years, and low interest rates mean the total effect is less than originally estimated, at 72 cents per $1,000 as opposed to 80 cents.

But as Gailey noted, the council and city officials will be pushing hard for passage of a bond next year to fund construction of the new public works, transportation and parks and recreation facility at the transfer station on Highland Avenue.

Initial estimates for the bond, including interest, have approached $22 million, and L’Heureux and others are looking for ways to reduce costs. But Gailey said replacing the current public works depot is essential.

Gailey said two buildings at the current site on O’Neil Street have been condemned, and it is time to move operations out of the residential neighborhood while consolidating city services.

“The transfer station land meets everything we need,” he said.

The workshop preceded the swearing in of new councilors and school board members, scheduled for Monday, Dec. 3, at 4 p.m.

The South Portland City Council is in a greater state of flux than the School Board, with Councilors Linda Cohen and Melissa Linscott taking seats previously held by Councilors Maxine Beecher and De Angelis, respectively.

Also, by early next year, Councilor Tom Coward will have resigned his District 1 seat as he becomes a Cumberland County commissioner. A special election to replace Coward may be held within 60 days after his resignation, according to the City Charter.

The School Board welcomes House. Incumbents Tappan Fitzgerald, Matthews and James Gilboy were all re-elected to three-year terms. Fitzgerald, the current board chairman, has been nominated as vice chairman.

Formal votes on the caucus choices for Blake as mayor and Carter as School Board chairman will be held Monday after the swearing-in ceremonies.

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.