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South Portland residents slam school budget, administrators

News

South Portland residents slam school budget, administrators

SOUTH PORTLAND — Residents on Monday night called on the City Council to require further cuts to the School Department's proposed budget, which was widely criticized during a hour-long public hearing.

Residents, who packed council chambers, were reacting to a $61.1 million budget proposal presented by the city manager and superintendent of schools.

The fiscal 2011 budget, which includes $2.1 million in county spending, is $1.8 million smaller than the current budget, but is projected to increase local property taxes by 1.29 percent, or 19 cents per $1,000 valuation.

Both the city and schools are projecting revenue losses for next year, mostly from the state, and increasing operating costs for fuel and insurance. The schools expect to lose more than $1.7 million in state education funding, while the city expects to lose $700,000, mostly in state revenue sharing and excise taxes.

City Manager Jim Gailey's $27.1 million budget would eliminate nearly eight jobs, but would require no layoffs. It includes more than $200,000 cuts to public safety, eliminates the cross-town bus and dog waste bags in public parks.

The proposal would also move the city's Planning and Development Department from rented offices on E Street to the former Hamlin School on Ocean Street – a move estimated to save $60,000 a year.

Unlike last year, where the abrupt layoff of five veteran employees ignited criticism from some in the community, residents largely complimented Gailey's budget, which would increase the tax rate by less than 1 percent.

Residents were not so kind, however, to the School Department, which many criticized as lacking a long-term vision for everything from facility needs to student performance on standardized tests. 

The School Board is proposing a $37.9 million budget that would require 25 layoffs. The plan is projected to increase taxes by 1.5 percent, or $509,000. It would infuse a reserve account with funds to renovated the high school, even though a $42 million plan currently on the table has yet to get voter approval.

The City Council will hold a special workshop on April 14 at 6:30 p.m. in the council chambers at City Hall to consider the school budget.

Colchester Drive resident Albert Dimillo, a former corporate tax accountant and frequent School Department critic, accused the superintendent of schools, school business director and the entire School Board of what he suggested was deceitful budgeting.

"These people are clueless," he said. "They need to go."

While the municipal budget is built using actual spending total from previous years, Dimillo said the School Department simply increases its budget based proposals previously approved by the board.

Over the last five years, he said, the schools have over-budgeted by an average of $1.7 million, creating a more than $3.5 million surplus. 

That surplus, which topped $5 million in recent years, was also flagged by city's auditing firm, but the district has been taking steps to reduce the balance by using $1.2 million in each of the last several budgets.

Dimillo offered his accounting services to the schools, saying he could build a budget that addresses the facility issues that threaten the high school's accreditation and build a consolidated middle school without raising taxes.

"That is possible," Dimillo said, "but it will never happen with this board and superintendent."

Tanner Street resident Gary Grosby, who praised the less than 1 percent increase in municipal spending, said the School Board should sit down with Dimillo and televise the meeting.

"I would love to see that," said Crosby, who, like others, was critical of the proposed 1.5 percent tax increase to fund a capital account for a new high school. "I think it would be very educational for the public."

While that suggestion gained traction with several people, including parents, others were incredulous. One parent accused Dimillo and other parents of bullying school leaders, while another said it was unrealistic to think anyone would take him seriously.

"I think it's a joke to think that someone who presents like that for people to be open to that information," resident Bernadette Pappi said.

Members of Partnership for South Portland Schools, a fledgling grassroots group of parents seeking to establish a nonprofit education foundation, repeated their calls for the City Council to work with the schools to draft a comprehensive plan for the schools.

Resident Melissa Linscott, a real estate agent, listed several areas she believes needs attention – from loss of millions in federal stimulus dollars next year to "dismal" standardized test scores. She estimated that property values in South Portland may decline by nearly 20 percent if the high school loses accreditation.

"I'm most upset about the lack of vision and foresight to address these issues," Linscott said. "We need to stop taking a reactionary stance and operating in crisis mode."

Linscott, however, said she doesn't support the $42 million plan to rebuild the high school, because the district doesn't have a strategy to pay for it.

Resident Ray Lee, who said he has "one leg in the grave and the other on a banana peel," said the school and, to some extent the city, budgets need more cuts.  Even a zero percent tax increase would be the equivalent of a 4 to 5 percent tax increase on seniors with fixed income, he said.

"You've got to grab the bull by the horns," Lee said. "And this is the year to do it."

The City Council will hold a series of budget workshops on April 10 and 14. For a more information, visit the city's Web site.

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