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South Portland voters to consider $39.5M budget, $5.8M bond for schools

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South Portland voters to consider $39.5M budget, $5.8M bond for schools

SOUTH PORTLAND — On June 9, residents will be asked to vote on a $39.5 million school budget and a $5.8 million bond for repairs to the high school and two middle schools.

The fiscal 2010 budget referendum is a relatively new state requirement, instituted in 2007 to increase transparency and community involvement in school spending. Last year, the school budget passed by only 36 votes, 753-717.

But school officials, who have proposed a budget that is $500,000 smaller than current spending that will not increase taxes, are hoping to generate more community support this year. 

"My hope is that the community will come out and support a zero percent increase on needs from taxes budgeted for the schools," Superintendent Suzanne Godin said. 

Looming equally large is the proposal to borrow $5.8 million for school improvements.

The New England Association of Schools and Colleges, a regional group that accredits high schools, placed South Portland High School on warning status because of the state of its facility. The group cited several concerns, including structural decay; compliance with federal, state and local codes; outdated electrical systems; leaky roofs; poor air quality; asbestos and lack of a secure learning environment. 

"The school's warning status will not be removed until the school can demonstrate that it has satisfactorily completed" recommended improvements, NEASC Director Pamela Gray-Bennett said in a letter to school officials.

If the bond is approved, school officials plan on investing $2.4 million into the high school. The scope of work would include upgrading the electrical system and installing emergency lighting and a security system with surveillance and intrusion-detection systems.

The balance, meanwhile, is earmarked for similar improvements at Mahoney Middle School and Memorial Middle School.

Godin said the bond would begin to address recommendations outlined by NEASC to maintain high school accreditation. The district also has to submit a comprehensive plan to meet all of those recommendations by Dec. 1, 2009. 

"It will be a step towards satisfying that requirement, because the bond does not address those components," Godin said. Other issues like asbestos mitigation, air and heating systems and repairing a growing fissure between the Annex and the original school would still have to be addressed.

"At some point, we'll have to tackle a full-scale renovation," the superintendent said.  

Two years ago, voters rejected a $56 million plan to rebuild the high school by a 3-1 margin. That lack of community support was also noted by the accreditation committee.

The school budget, meanwhile, will not increase local taxes. Although 16 jobs have been eliminated, there will be no layoffs since the district anticipated these cuts last year and only hired some teachers for one-year contracts.

The budget, however, exceeds the state model for Essential Programs and Services, which sets the minimum spending level for education, by $5.81 million. South Portland exceeds the minimum spending because residents in recent years voted to maintain an extra middle school and elementary school. The district also spends more than the state minimum on activities like athletics and on school nurses. 

The district was able to produce a budget that does not increase the tax rate largely thanks to federal stimulus funds. The district removed several teaching positions that will have to be reviewed in two years when the money runs out and several maintenance projects from the local budget, funding them instead with the federal stimulus.

City councilors praised school officials, while passing six different budget articles on Monday night.

Councilor Jim Soule said the community and businesses benefit from a well-educated populous and commended the School Board for the doing its job to provide a quality education in a fiscally responsible manner. 

"I've watched the meetings; I've seen the angst," Soule said. "The numbers do not lie." 

Councilor Linda Boudreau said the current budget – and the bond issue – are needed to maintain the school system.

"The majority have chosen the direction for our school system," Boudreau said. "This is the budget that this community has in fact framed for our schools."

All voting, regardless of district, will take place on Tuesday, June 9, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., at the South Portland Community Center, 21 Nelson Road. 

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