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South Portland School Board may buck City Council, seek tax increase

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South Portland School Board may buck City Council, seek tax increase

SOUTH PORTLAND — The School Board on Monday signaled that it would not support a budget that does not increase taxes – a move that could set the stage for a contentious budget hearing with the City Council.

Board Chairman Richard Carter said a zero percent school budget would adversely affect South Portland students, while Vice Chairman Ralph Baxter said he didn't even want to invest energy into the effort.

"I don't want to spend my energy on a zero percent budget," Baxter said. "It's a waste of my time. I'd rather fight for something beyond zero."

The push-back comes as the board struggles to find $2.6 million in cuts, $2.3 million of which is being driven by a reduction in state education funding.

Compounding the school budget problems is the budget guidance given in a joint meeting in January to the board by the City Council, which sets the bottom line for school spending.

Three councilors at that meeting said the school should produce a budget that doesn't increase taxes. Three other councilors said they would support moderate increases, but could not agree on a number. One councilor was absent.

To meet the budget guidance, Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin proposed eliminating 31 positions, which would require 29 layoffs. Other proposals include outsourcing custodial services, a move opposed by the Service Employees Union, and implementing a pay-to-participate system for extracurricular activities.

Godin also proposed closing Mahoney Middle School and moving the students to Memorial Middle School in 2011, which would save nearly $900,000 a year.

The proposals are not only unpopular with the board, but also parents, who at a public hearing Monday night at Skillin Elementary School pleaded with board members to assert themselves to the council.

"Take a more active role in city politics," Boysenberry Drive resident Chris Roberts said. "I'll ride with you to the City Council if you'd like."

Simmons Road resident Glenn Ekholm argued that a zero-percent budget was actually a budget reduction, since it doesn't keep pace with the current inflation rate of 2.6 percent.

"Zero percent doesn't work. Zero is negative," Ekholm said. "The City Council needs to hear from us and needs to hear from you."

Massachusetts Avenue resident Tap Fitzgerald said the board should present its best budget to the City Council and if the council turns it down they will have to answer to the voters.

"Let the citizens decide what they want to do," he said. "You're working for the students. Make sure you remember that."

School Business manager Polly Ward said a 1 percent tax increase would give the district more than $335,000 in additional revenue, while a 2.75 percent increase would net an additional $930,000.

Mayor Tom Coward said he understands the board's concerns and doesn't fault them for pushing back at the council's budget guidance.

Coward has downplayed the council's January budget guidance and has called on his fellow councilors to consider raising taxes to avoid decimating city services. He noted unease among councilors about proposed cuts to city services, including a $250,000 reduction in police and fire department budgets.

"Even in the best of times, the guidance is informal," Coward said, noting it was more of a goal than a directive. "We sort of gave them (the School Board) no-guidance guidance."

However, Councilor Tom Blake, who strongly supported a zero percent budget, said it would be irresponsible for the School Board to disregard what he sees as a council directive, especially when so many residents are losing their jobs and struggling during the recession.

"I continue to hear from people who say (they) can't afford a tax increase," he said. "I hear it from a lot of people."

Blake said he believes a zero percent budget was clear guidance from the council. Even if each councilor's proposal was averaged, the school could only justify a 0.8 percent increase, he said.

"When you're given guidance you need to stay within that guidance," said Blake, noting how the city manager was making difficult cuts to stay to meet that budget goal. "I don't know many people who are getting raises."

The schools are scheduled to vote on a budget on Monday, March 8, and present their budget to the City Council the following week.

The school budget not only needs the support of the council, but the residents as well. Carter said he would not hesitate to campaign against the budget that contained significant cuts prior to the referendum.

"I will be the first person to tell people not to support it," he said. "I will tell people to vote it down."

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