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Parents urge support for school budget

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Parents urge support for school budget

SOUTH PORTLAND — Nearly a dozen parents voiced their support for the School Department's proposed budget at a public hearing Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, after a protest Monday night about the layoffs of five veteran city employees, there was no mention in the hearing of the action that was meant to address a $700,000 shortfall in city revenue. 

City Manager Jim Gailey and Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin presented their proposed budgets for fiscal year 2010, which starts July 1. 

Combined, the budgets total $79.7 million, an $813,000, or 1.01 percent, decrease from the current budget of $80.5 million. If projected revenues from the state hold, a 1.46 percent increase in property taxes is expected, resulting in a 20-cent increase in the mil rate, from $14 per $1,000 valuation to $14.20. 

The locally supported portion of the school budget totals nearly $34.3 million, a 1.5 percent increase, or nearly $495,000. The local portion of the municipal budget is $17.4 million, an increase of nearly $587,000, or 3.5 percent.

Pressures on the school budget were lightened by the federal stimulus package, which allowed the state to restore a $875,000 curtailment in education subsidy in the current and upcoming  budgets. The schools also expect to receive an additional $1.4 million in stimulus funds next year and increased funding for economically disadvantaged and special education students. 

"There are significant caveats on how that money can be used," Godin said. 

The city, however, was not so lucky. Despite five layoffs, six voluntary resignations and a renegotiated fuel contract – measures expected to save the city $681,000 next year – the municipal budget includes a $814,000 reduction in non-property tax revenue.

Meanwhile, municipal expenses are expected to increase by $380,000, nearly $114,000 of which is for worker's compensation, $95,000 for recycling and solid waste collection, $73,000 for health insurance, $65,000 in road salt and $33,000 in general assistance.

"All this results in the perfect storm of municipal budgeting," Gailey said. "We did not have the capacity in our budget to sustain and keep our heads above water."

Although non-union city workers will not receive raises next year, the municipal budget includes raises for the city's eight unions. The School Department successfully negotiated a pay freeze with the Administrators Association, which was scheduled for $20,000 in raises next year, and continues talks with the Teacher's Union. Also, nonunion school administrators agreed to a pay freeze, saving $11,000 next year. 

Gailey said the contracts for five of the eight municipal unions are scheduled to expire at the end of next year, which didn't allow him to seek concessions.

During the public comment, resident Steve Gray asked city officials to present a budget that reduces taxes, since many older residents living on fixed incomes are struggling more than ever to keep their homes. Likewise, Albert DiMillio asked for further cuts, especially in school spending.

But the majority of people expressed support for the budget and used the televised meeting to encourage support for the school budget and a $5.83 million renovation bond for the middle and high schools, which will be put to voters this June.

Many parents said they are concerned about what they see as a lack of community support for the schools. Some noted that the possibility of the high school losing accreditation is prompting them and their neighbors to consider moving out of the city or to send their kids to private schools. 

"The only reason I would consider leaving this city is because of the schools," said Susan Adams, a 13-year resident with two children attending public schools. "I don't want my kids raised in a community that sees them as a liability rather than an asset."

Meghan Gavin said that letting the schools fall into disrepair would hurt the city's ability to attract new families and businesses to the area. 

"We're not asking for extras," Galvin said. "These are not toys or goodies."

Without maintaining and attracting new businesses, Peter Stalks said future budgeting would only get more difficult, because of the subsequent loss of tax revenue, which in turn would require more layoffs and reduced school funding. "It's a vicious cycle," he said.

The City Council will conduct a series of budget workshops over the next month, where they will review each departmental budget. A formal vote on both is expected in late May or early June.

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