Confusion precedes Portland school budget hearing

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PORTLAND — The School Committee on Wednesday, March 24, will hold a public hearing on next year’s proposed budget, which eliminates dozens of jobs.

The fiscal 2011 budget of $89.9 million is about $1.5 million smaller than this year’s budget, but would require a 1.2 percent increase in local taxes due to a $4.7 million loss in state and federal revenue. 

The School Committee, however, will consider a budget that is considerably different than the one presented by Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. on March 3, and the one that brought out more than 100 residents at a public hearing on March 8.

About 80 positions were originally targeted for elimination, but Morse said adjustments over the last week have reduced that number to 53. About 17 positions were added by the Finance Committee, while administrators made other minor adjustments.

Morse said it is not yet clear how many layoffs will be needed.

School Finance Committee Chairwoman Kate Snyder said the committee struggled last week to understand exactly what was included in Morse’s budget and what wasn’t.

Snyder said she and other committee members believed that Morse’s budget included $188,000 in cuts to middle school sports and added two elementary world language teachers as well as 8.4 teachers for English Language Learners.

Snyder said she was surprised to learn they were not included, especially after the district sent out press releases announcing some of the initiatives.

“We reinstated what we thought was in the budget to begin with,” Snyder said. “It was a very tough week.”

Morse said he mistakenly thought the middle school sports cuts had been implemented in his budget proposal. But the additional staffing for programs like ELL and world language teachers were simply proposals that were up to the committee, he said.

“It was a miscommunication,” Morse said. “They’re learning how I work and I’m learning how they work. I will be better prepared next year.”

Snyder said the confusion did not allow the committee to think creatively about how to use about $1.6 million in state education funding the district will receive thanks to better-than-expected state revenues.

The budget passed by the Finance Committee on March 18 restores nearly $1.1 million.

Previously unmet needs proposed for funding include the 8.4 teachers for English Language Learners, three social studies teachers at Lincoln Middle School and two world language teachers, as well as a literacy aid and an instructional technology aid.

“We are teetering on the edge of noncompliance,” Snyder said of the school’s ELL staffing. “I can’t even imagine (Morse) didn’t put those positions in the budget.”

Another $100,000 was added back to install wireless networks at Lyseth, Hall and Longfellow elementary schools and $75,000 was added for a co-op at Portland High School.

Snyder said Morse’s budget included $600,000 previously used to pay back the city for money used close the schools’ 2007 budget deficit. Since that has been repaid, she said, the committee reduced that contingency to $300,000, placing it in an account that will require School Committee approval to spend.

Meanwhile, Morse said the Finance Committee also recommended using up to $800,000 for property tax relief. Morse’s original budget, though smaller, would have increased taxes by 2.5 percent, but the budget to be considered this week contains a 1.2 percent tax increase.

Morse said four additional elementary school teachers have been added to the budget, but will be federally funded and will not affect the local tax rate.

Snyder said it will be up to the School Committee whether to reinstate $160,000 for two music positions. During a public hearing on the budget on March 8, residents and students pleaded with the School Committee to reinstate those positions.

Morse said transition plans will be prepared over the next year about how to implement the proposed changes to middle school athletics in the 2012 budget. Transition plans will also be prepared for the Family Living Program, which would use contracted services instead of school staff.

Snyder said she believes the Finance Committee approved a responsible budget. But she hopes parents and students will be able to understand what is exactly in the budget.

“We need to be able to communicate clearly with people who are understandably nervous,” Snyder said. “People feel not only confused, but angry when they don’t understand what’s going on.”

A public hearing and first vote on the proposed budget is scheduled for 7 p.m. in room 250 of Casco Bay High School, 196 Allen Ave.

A final budget vote is scheduled for March 31. If approved, the school budget will be sent to the City Council, which sets the bottom line for school spending.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or