South Portland to launch Sister City initiative; schools to focus on budget cuts, high school renovations
SOUTH PORTLAND — Newly elected members of the City Council and School Board were sworn into office Monday night at City Hall.
Tom Coward was elected mayor by a unanimous vote of the council and Richard Carter, who delivered his inaugural address and nearly adjourned the meeting without holding a formal public vote on the chairmanship, was unanimously elected chairman of the School Board. Ralph Baxter Jr. was selected to be the vice chairman of the board.
Rosemarie DeAngelis and Maxine Beecher were sworn in as councilors and James Gilboy, Alan Livingston and Jerald McQueeney were sworn in as School Board members. All positions carry three-year terms.
Coward, a real estate agent and attorney, used his inaugural address to announce a new Sister City initiative, where South Portland would seek another community – either in the United States or abroad – that is of similar size, composition and global outlook. Many communities have a sister city, the first-term councilor said, which typically results in educational, cultural and economic exchanges.
"We can sometimes become too focused on our purely local concerns," he said. "However, I think we must look outwards as well."
Coward also noted the importance of the council and School Board coming up with a plan to address facility needs at the high school.
That plan, however, must be one that the public will support, since a $40 million to $49 million bond is expected to be needed for the current plan to go through. Voters overwhelmingly rejected a $56 million bond two years ago.
"So far, this program has been like Goldilocks: either much too big, or much too small," Coward said. "This year, the council and the school committee must come up with a proposal that is just right."
The deteriorating high school is not the only major capital need in the city, though.
Coward said the council must finally plan for new facilities for the bus service, parks and public works, since portions of the current O'Neil Street facility are condemned. He said he will call upon the council to draft a prioritized list of capital projects.
"The council looked at this problem in the past," he said. "This year we must consider solutions."
Coward also highlighted the importance of updating the city's Comprehensive Plan and cleaning up the Long Creek Watershed.
Coward said the results of the election were a source of pride for him, because residents overwhelming supported gay marriage and defeated two initiatives to limit state spending.
Coward didn't address major alternative energy initiatives currently afoot in South Portland. They include a wood-to-electricity plant on Duck Pond Road near Rigby Yard and city-led initiatives that would explore the possibility of wind power at Wainwright Farms and establishing a wood-to-energy power plant to lower operating cost for National Semiconductor and Fairchild Semiconductor.
In his inaugural address, Carter said the School Department will be faced with a tremendous challenge in the coming year: maintaining quality educational programming in the face of significant budget cuts from the state.
While the recession is also affecting municipal operations, Carter said the school struggle is unique. The district expects to lose $1.2 million in revenue in the current budget and may lose more than $2 million next year.
Carter said the schools do not have the luxury of turning students away.
"In this debate, schools are somewhat different," he said. "Schools in South Portland as well as all cities and towns are required to welcome all who come through our doors and provide them with a quality education; and that is how it should be."
The district must balance budget cuts without compromising student learning, he said. The district has formed a task force made up of administrators, union presidents and a board representative to address budget cuts this year and next.
Carter also mentioned the need to address facilities problems at the high school, which has been placed on warning status by a regional accreditation committee, and middle schools.
"We cannot and should not expect our kids to put up with conditions that few of us will tolerate," he said. "Our students cannot fully achieve their potential if the educational facility is substandard."
Carter said the board must reach out to residents and get their support for rebuilding the high school.
A joint meeting of the council and School Board that was scheduled for Wednesday night was postponed until Tuesday night, Dec. 15, because of weather.
Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or firstname.lastname@example.org