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Schools eye union, stimulus funds as budget vote looms

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Schools eye union, stimulus funds as budget vote looms

Board hopes to reduce tax increase from 3.4 percent to 3 percent
SOUTH PORTLAND — The School Board is scheduled to vote Monday night on a fiscal 2010 budget of $40.5 million that will increase the tax rate by 3.4 percent.
Although the proposed budget eliminates 16 positions, Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin said there will be no layoffs, since some of the positions are vacant and those in filled positions will take on other roles within the district.
Meanwhile, the board publicly ramped up pressure on union leaders to reopen their contracts, which are scheduled for increases next year as high a 3.5 percent, to find additional cost-savings in the current and next year's budgets.
"It's the right thing to do in this economic climate," Board Chairwoman Stacy Gato said.
The board wants to reduce the school's increase on the local tax rate from 3.4 percent to 3 percent in an effort to generate good will among voters. Residents will be asked in June to not only pass a school budget, but also a $5.85 million bond for improvements to the high school and middle school.
"We need as much good will as we can get," Board Vice Chairman Richard Carter said.
Business manager Polly Ward said the board would have to make nearly $140,000 in additional cuts to hit the 3 percent mark.
Godin said she hopes to have a clear understanding by Monday night about how education funds contained in the federal stimulus package can be used, both in the current budget and next year's. She also hopes to have a reliable state subsidy figure by then.
Godin said the state education commissioner has signaled the stimulus funds would restore the governor's $27 million statewide curtailment in education funds. The commissioner also speculated that districts might be able to carry over some of that restored funding to next year's budget.
Board members, however, were split on what to do with any revenue surplus that may be generated from the stimulus or an increase is state subsidy. Some wanted to return some of the money to the taxpayers, while others wanted to use it to bolster the maintenance reserve account.
Godin's original budget proposal eliminated 11 positions: a high school social studies teacher, a data manager, a building control specialist and five coaching stipends. Those reductions, however, still left next year's proposed budget $263,528 in the red.
To make up the difference, the board freed up more than $162,000 by cutting an additional five positions: a special education social worker, a special education teacher, a certification coordinator and two cheering coaches.
The district also expects to save $87,750 in fuel costs, $20,910 in substitute teacher costs, $5,000 in consolidated athletic trips and $5,600 by beginning to move school snow plowing in house, rather than contracting it out.
Those cuts were enough to bring the board's budget to within the 3.5 percent tax increase set by the City Council. However, about $140,000 in additional cuts would be needed to bring that increase down to 3 percent.
Although the City Charter requires a budget vote Monday night, the board could later reconvene to amend the budget to reflect any potential cost savings realized by renegotiating union contracts or additional revenue from the stimulus.
Teacher's Association President Tom Major said he is trying to schedule a meeting with Godin about trying to find additional cost savings. The union, slated for a 3.5 percent salary increase next year, previously supported the idea of finding cost savings, but indicated that an all-out salary freeze would be a nonstarter.
However, Major seemed to dial back that position this week.
"I'm sure that we'll get into specifics in the talks with the district representatives," Major said. "I'll hold off on making any more specific comments for that meeting."
Lisa Ranger, president of the Educational Support Staff union, said union representatives have already met with Godin once and are planning another meeting soon. However, Ranger indicated the union, scheduled for a 3.5 percent raise, would be very hesitant to alter the current pay schedule before specific details of the stimulus package are known.
"We are open to discussion with the superintendent as to what steps should be taken at that point," she said.
Kathy Germani, president of the Administrator's Association, said the union is open to discussions. The 14-member union just signed a three-year contract that calls for $20,000 in raises next year.
Meanwhile, non-unionized central office staff, which typically base their raises off the Administrators Association contract, have chosen not to seek a 2 percent raise next year, which will save the district $11,600.
Board member Ralph Baxter said he hopes the bargaining units will do their part and make some of the same sacrifices families across the nation are being forced to make.
"People are taking pay cuts everywhere," Baxter said. "People are losing their jobs everywhere." 

The School Board meets Monday at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall.

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