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Added state funding could reduce cuts, tax impact of Portland school budget

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Added state funding could reduce cuts, tax impact of Portland school budget

PORTLAND — The School Department could receive $1.3 million more in state education funding than originally anticipated.

Last week, Gov. John Baldacci announced that with state revenues exceeding expectations, he would allocate an additional $20 million in general purpose aid to local school districts.

Although the increased funding must still survive the Legislature, Portland Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr. said the announcement was a "bold move" by the governor. It came only hours before Morse presented his budget proposal to the School Committee on March 3.

"It was quite a surprise," Morse said. "I wasn't anticipating this one. We kept being told there wasn't going to be any relief from the state or federal government."

Portland had originally planned on getting $10.2 million in state education funds, $4.3 million less than the previous year. Pending legislative approval, Portland now anticipates receiving $11.5 million. 

School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said additional state funding is welcome, but would not make the looming budget decisions any easier.

"The cuts will still be difficult," Eglinton said. "But it helps to have the additional flexibility to consider as we review the superintendent's budget and take action on the committee."

Morse said it would be up to the school Finance Committee to make a recommendation to the full School Committee about how the additional funding would be used.

While the proposed $89.3 million budget is $2 million smaller than the current spending, it is expected to increase the property tax rate by 2.5 percent, or $1.7 million.

Morse said the committee could recommend a variety of options – from applying the additional funds to tax relief to using every penny to reinstate cuts.

Morse said he would likely recommend using some of the $1.3 million to address unmet needs, while saving the rest for another potential mid-year cut in state funding next year.

Last year, the state threatened a mid-year cut in education funding, but an influx of federal stimulus money staved off the reductions. This year, the state followed through with a mid-year cut of $2.7 million to Portland.

"This is the second year the state threatened school systems with curtailment and this is this first year they actually did it," Morse said.

Morse said the biggest unmet needs in the district include a shortage of elementary school teachers and staff for English Language Learners, who account for 26 percent of Portland's nearly 7,000 students. While population of ELL students has increased by 62 percent over the last six years, he said staffing has declined by 15 percent.

However, Morse said that all of his budget proposals, which includes cutting more than 80 jobs, are fair game for the committee, including a plan to drastically reduce middle school sports.

Eglinton said the Finance Committee is expected to produce its recommended budget for the full School Committee at a March 17 workshop. A first reading and public hearing is scheduled for March 24 and a final vote has been scheduled for March 31, he said.

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