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Portland schools' 'best guesstimate': $2.8M in budget cuts should absorb state curtailment

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Portland schools' 'best guesstimate': $2.8M in budget cuts should absorb state curtailment

PORTLAND — School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton on Monday said a curtailment plan instituted last week to deal with a $2.7 million reduction in education funding by the state sets a target that is in line with cuts announced by the governor on Friday, Dec. 18. 

"The governor's announcement included the cuts in state funding that we expected," Eglinton said, acknowledging the Legislature could make changes to the total $73.2 million now proposed by Gov. John Baldacci. "We will be closely monitoring our progress towards achieving the spending cuts."

The School Committee on Dec. 16 unanimously approved a plan to reduce the current budget by $2.83 million. Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. will update the committee's finance subcommittee on a monthly basis about whether the district is achieving its targeted savings.

When his plan was first submitted, the finance panel sent Morse back to the drawing board to find a more equitable way to find savings throughout the district. The original plan was formed by identifying unspent balances in each school's budget, which in some cases varied greatly.

Defining equity as being fair and reasonable rather than equal, Morse said he revisited his methodology to achieve more equity in his proposed curtailment, using Portland High School Principal Michael Johnson's use of substitute teacher savings as his guide.

Morse said he pooled all potential savings from substitute teachers realized by eliminating most professional development conferences and workshops. Those savings were divided by 6,900 students, an average of $22 per student, and then redistributed to each school based on enrollment.

Also, based on conversations with the School Department accountant, the total projected savings from substitutes was increased from $100,000 to $150,000. "Based on that (conversation), I was more confident we could reach our savings goal," Morse said.

Morse, who ranked his recommended cuts on a scale of one to 10, said he also eliminated any cut that had a confidence level of four or under. As a result, two furlough days originally proposed have been eliminated from the plan.

However, Morse said the unions have agreed to discuss the possibility of using furlough days later in the school year, should they be needed.

Morse said he also removed any cuts involving co-curricular activities, like spring sports or drama offerings. Cuts in those areas, he said, did not seem fair, since similar fall and winter activities have already been offered.

"It wasn't equitable to talk about pulling a sports season from the budget, so I took that cut away," Morse said. "Budding thespians (Lincoln Middle School) will be able to do drama."

Committee member Jaimey Caron applauded the updated curtailment plan as improving on the original submission and for meeting a more equitable standard.

"It's a plan that's been refined. I think that was lacking last time," said Caron, who serves on the finance subcommittee. "Maybe we rushed the process a bit and we didn't have time to reflect on what we were putting in front of us."

Committee member Kate Snyder, who is the finance subcommittee chairwoman, said the plan represents a proactive approach to the curtailment, which the committee began preparing for at the start of the school year.

"It makes me feel proud that Portland is in this position today, rather than a different position later," Snyder said.

Although School Committee members were generally supportive of Morse's revised plans, several questioned the inclusion of turnover savings being realized through a retirement incentive offered last year.

Of the nearly $275,000 in projected turnover savings, Human Resources Director Jolene Hart said about $100,000 is the result of not filling three positions, one of which carried an annual salary of about $60,000.

While Morse's plan outlines more than $2.8 million in potential savings, he emphasized that it is uncertain whether those savings will reach their targets. As long as the actual savings come in close to their targets, he said he hopes residents and the City Council will find it acceptable.

"I can't say this enough: this is our best guesstimate," Morse said. "We've identified a plan we're confident in. Based on where we are in six months, people would understand we had a strong plan. That's where our credibility is."

As difficult as it is for the district to meet the projected curtailment, the committee is bracing itself for an even bigger cut next year. Committee member Justin Costa said the district must keep the issue of equity in the forefront.

"We show our commitment to those goals not when things are easy, (but) when they are difficult," Costa said.

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