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Panel looks to pare down $92M Portland school budget

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Panel looks to pare down $92M Portland school budget

PORTLAND — The Finance Committee this week begins reviewing a $92 million school budget proposed for the fiscal year that starts July 1, with an eye toward trimming costs and reducing the tax burden on residents.
The proposed budget eliminates 23.6 positions: 10.6 teaching positions, eight ed techs and facilitators, six food service workers and a part-time assistant principal at Reiche Elementary School.
Even with the job cuts, the proposed budget, which assumes flat funding from the state of $14.9 million, still represents a spending increase of $2.5 million, or 2.83 percent, over the current budget of $89.5 million.
That increase would lead to a 3.61 percent increase in the local tax rate, since $70 million of the budget is locally supported.
School Committee member Kate Snyder, who leads the Finance Committee, said she believes the proposed budget, presented on March 4 to the School Committee, is fiscally responsible. Over the coming weeks, however, the committee must explore whether the increase is appropriate in light of the economic downturn.
"In most economic climates, I don't think that's an unreasonable inflationary rate," Snyder said. "We're obviously living in tough economic times. More than ever, Portland's taxes are a sensitive issue. We need to be careful."
Snyder said she and other committee members are soliciting budget feedback from constituents, who are expected to vote on the budget in a May 12 referendum.
Interim Superintendent Jeanne Whynot-Vickers' budget presentation last week highlighted last year's achievements, which included a $600,000 repayment towards a $1.2 million debt with the city and a renegotiation of the teachers' contract. The latter instituted cost-controlling measures for pay raises linked with professional development.
Whynot-Vickers budgeted $130,000 next year for professional development raises, which is down from $743,000 in the current budget.
The budget presentation also highlighted the increased demand for resources for English Language Learners, a population that has experienced an increase of 62 percent over the last seven years. Meanwhile, ELL staff has declined 15 percent, which officials say resulted in a lack of instructional support for ELL students being mainstreamed into regular classrooms.
ELL students account for 26 percent of the district's nearly 7,000 students. The vast majority of ELL students are considered economically disadvantaged, since 97 percent receive free or reduced lunch. Overall, 45 percent of Portland's students are economically disadvantaged.
"We face unique challenges as Maine's most diverse school district," Whynot-Vickers said.
Some areas of the proposed budget are expected to receive particular scrutiny, including the addition of an assistant superintendent to oversee the district's four high schools. That position would cost more than $100,000.
School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said that while he understands the rationale for adding the job, he would first like to speak with James Morse, who was hired this month as the new superintendent and will begin on July 1.
"I look forward to his fresh perspective on the way the district operates," Eglinton said. "(We) will also need to consider competing priorities and budget restraints."
Eglinton said he is pleased that the proposed budget is a step towards multi-year budgeting, noting a three-year plan to replace the district's school buses. He said he hopes future budgets will take the long view toward
unmet needs like classroom supplies, technology, elementary
foreign language and librarians.
Eglinton was cautious, however, about an assumption that the district would receive $1.8 million in special education and Title I funding from the federal stimulus.
"My opinion is we should not count on uncertain funding," he said, "and should avoid using stimulus money for staff positions that will require an unsustainable long-term commitment once the stimulus is gone."
According to the budget presentation, there are 13 full- and part-time positions contingent on stimulus funding.
The proposed budget also includes another $600,000 payment to the city's reserve account, which the district expects to fully reimburse by the end of 2010. School officials hope to maintain a similar line item in future budgets to build reserve and contingency accounts once the debt to the city is repaid.
The Finance Committee will hold budget hearings this next week,
before sending a recommendation to the full School Committee on March
16. The School Committee has scheduled  a first reading of the revised budget on March 25 and is expected to take a final vote on April 1.

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

 

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