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Portland schools on track for $700K budget surplus

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Portland schools on track for $700K budget surplus

PORTLAND — The School Committee will receive a third-quarter finance report that predicts at least a $700,000 surplus at end of the fiscal year. 

Also, in a workshop following its meeting on Wednesday, April 15, the committee will hold preliminary discussions about creating two new high school courses designed to educate students about non-Western cultures.

The quarterly finance report was presented to the Finance Subcommittee on Monday and was expected to be discussed at a joint city and school finance meeting on Tuesday. The full School Committee will be briefed on Wednesday. 

According to the report, as of March 31 the district had spent about 71 percent of its budget. It is 75 percent through the current fiscal year.

At this time last year, the district was 74 percent expended and ended up running a deficit for the second consecutive year. In 2007, the district incurred a nearly $2 million deficit. But school officials downplayed last year's $240,000 overrun, since many of the prior year's accounting and budgeting mistakes had not been corrected.  

Although encouraged by the predicted surplus this year, committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said Tuesday that he intends to keep the pressure on central office staff to cut and control costs whenever possible. He said similar surplus predictions were made in previous years. 

"In the past, some of those predictions have not come through," Eglinton said. "We really won't know until the end of the year."

The schools began implementing significant spending freezes and other cost-cutting measures in late 2008, when the state indicated it would cut Portland's education subsidy by $1.8 million. Although an influx of federal funds has restored that curtailment for the current budget and next year's budget, school officials say they are keeping tight reins on spending and are working towards negotiating pay freezes with unions. 

Eglinton said if the surplus is realized, the district would use the money to rebuild an emergency fund balance. 

World culture courses

The School Committee will also discuss adding two new high school courses that would educate students about non-Western cultures. 

Those courses are Middle Eastern Studies and Understanding World Cultures Through Religion. 

Portland High School social studies teacher John Johnson said adding these courses would complete the district's world culture curriculum, which currently offers courses in African and Asian cultures. 

"This really completes the set," Johnson said Tuesday. 

Johnson said the hope is to offer the new courses at Portland High School next year. He said the courses would be electives and, if approved by the School Committee, would be offered only if enough students enroll. The new courses are not expected carry a budgetary impact, and School Committee Chairman Eglinton said there has been no request for additional funding.

PHS teacher Sarah Schmitt has proposed adding the Understanding World Cultures Through Religion. The course would study how religion permeates music, art, architecture, food, film, history geography, language, beliefs, practices and literature.

"The study of religion offers a unique window into culture," Schmitt, who hold a master's degree in theology from Boston University, said in her proposal. "Students are eager to learn about religion in a respectful and open forum."

Middle Eastern Studies, proposed by Johnson, would explore the region stretching from Afghanistan to Egypt and the Saudi peninsula to Turkey through current events, videos, film, guest speakers and community resources. 

Johnson said the courses are not being proposed for students who have come from Middle Eastern backgrounds, but for students interested in learning about other cultures. About 1,800 students currently enrolled in Portland come from other countries; they speak 50 different languages.

Johnson said students need to understand the world in order to succeed in the global economy. "Knowing about the world is vital," he said.

The request for a Middle Eastern Studies course also comes at a time when many Iraqi families are being resettled in the Portland area. Johnson said educators have a responsibility to properly educate students about Middle Eastern cultures to make sure prejudice does not take root. 

"There's an extra compelling reason with Middle Eastern Studies," Johnson said. "Since 9/11, it's really important that we as educators don't let our students have the wrong idea about Middle Eastern culture so they become judgemental or belive things that are not true."

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